It’s supposed to be simple: If you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight. If you take in more calories than you use, you gain weight. If you sit on the couch and eat Cheetos you have a better chance of getting fat than if you play basketball or run marathons.
But it’s not that simple. Especially in relatively wealthy America, where even our poorest citizens have access to cheap calories, where we are culturally opposed to walking when we can drive, and huge corporations push processed food at us. No wonder you see obese people everywhere you look in America — except in ads for McDonald’s.
Fed Up is a slick and well-argued advocacy documentary written and directed by Stephanie Soechtig (whose 2009 doc Tapped explored the bottled water industry) and narrated by perky executive producer Katie Couric. It charges the U.S. government with capitulation to Big Food lobbyists and alleges that this country’s childhood obesity epidemic is primarily due to the processed sugar that has been increasingly introduced into the American diet over the past 30 years. In essence, the film is saying, sugar is a drug — “the new tobacco” — to which our kids have been systematically addicted.
And given that our government is complicit in having turned a couple of generations into junk food junkies, the condescending directive to take “personal responsibility” for eating healthfully seems disingenuous and unhelpful. Fed Up contends that concentrating on promoting diet, diet foods and exercise is not only not solving the problem, but making it worse.
They have a point. Back in 1977, the McGovern Report warned of an impending obesity epidemic and suggested that the USDA revise its guidelines to recommend people eat less fat and sugar. But lobbyists for the egg and sugar industries objected and proposed new guidelines of its own, which recommended eating more “low-fat” foods — many of which have been saturated with sugar to make them “hyper-palatable” — rather than less of anything.
The lobbyists won in 2006, when the United Nations’ World Health Organization released similar food recommendations. According to the film, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson flew to Geneva to inform the U.N. that if the guidelines stood, the U.S. would withdraw its financial support from WHO.
That the government balances competing interests — children’s health with the financial bottom line of multinational corporations — shouldn’t be surprising to anyone alert to the way the world works. And while it doesn’t excuse the cynicism inherent in our government’s complicity with Big Food (Fed Up exposes the shocking degree to which junk food has infiltrated public school lunchrooms), the film does at times run to sensationalism. The truth is, it is possible to eat well and be healthy even in a world full of advertising come-ons and ubiquitous chemically enhanced snack food. The root problem may well be laziness as much as sugar.
Still, while adults might be expected to take personal responsibility for what they put in their bodies, Fed Up is most effective — and heartbreaking — when it visits a group of overweight kids struggling to lose weight.
“I want people to know that childhood obesity isn’t as simple as TV and press make it seem … and even Mrs. Obama,” a tearful 12-year-old girl who weighs more than 200 pounds, says in her video diary. “No matter how hard you try, it’s always going to be an ongoing battle.”
While it’s tempting to consign Fed Up to the growing heap of advocacy documentaries (like An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc.) verging on agitprop, it’s worth noting that there’s no discernible ideological bias at work here — Soechtig has a long history in TV news, mostly with ABC, but she also worked for a while as a producer on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show. It’s not a partisan diatribe.
Using a fast-paced mix of talking heads, cannily employed archival material, sobering statistics and colorful graphics, Soechtig has assembled an entertaining message movie that ironically mirrors the easy-to-consume junk that is its subject. It might go down a little too easily — sugar isn’t heroin or cocaine— and we’d be advised to be skeptical of any proffered absolution.
It’s not our fault we’re fat? Maybe it’s a little bit our fault.
Print Headline: Fed Up