Fed Up came out in May of this year, and at the time, I kept meaning to see it in theaters, but I missed it. It came out on video in September (I still say video, like I could go rent a VHS at Hollywood Video or something), and I have been on the waiting list for it at the library for weeks. Finally, I was able to watch it this weekend with my mom.
Going into it, my expectation was that it would be well done, but that I wouldn’t hear much that was new to me. I was pleasantly surprised – not just at what I learned, but also the fact that I’ve been mulling it over since I saw it several days ago.
The basic premise is that what we’ve been taught for decades about the keys to a healthy lifestyle – eat less and move more – isn’t exactly right. And that the obesity epidemic is less “our fault” than we think it is. The film details the history of this epidemic and what factors have led to it, and how science no longer backs up the “all calories are created equal” mantra that Big Food likes to spew when the safety of their products is questioned.
Type 2 diabetes cases are skyrocketing, particularly in children and adolescents, to the point where Type 2 is no longer called “adult onset diabetes.” We spend the GDP of a small nation on weight loss drugs and gym memberships, and every container of food in the supermarket has some health claim on it. Yet if America had a blood work panel done, it would show that by and large, as a nation we are pretty sick.
Setting aside the idea of the “obesity epidemic” for a moment, let’s talk about what got us to this place.
The filmmakers (as well as the World Health Organization and other esteemed health science groups) believe the primary culprit is sugar. When your body digests sugar, it needs fiber to slow down the absorption of the food. When something is high in sugar, but lacking in fiber, the body digests it quickly, overloading the liver and creating both fat and insulin. And that fast sugar digestion is what creates “sugar highs” and the related “crashes” once your body comes down off of the sugar. (They often liken sugar consumption to heroin or cocaine consumption, because it lights up the same parts of your brain.) It’s because of the way your body processes sugars that not all calories are created equal. 160 calories of almonds has a different effect on the body than 160 calories of soda.
Beginning in the 1980s, America became obsessed with eliminating fat from our diets, and “low fat” became synonymous with health. But when an essential part of the processed foods trifecta (sugar, salt and fat) is removed, the others have to go up to make the food palatable. So those low fat products that we all were convinced by the food industry were healthy? FULL of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that adults only consume 6-9 grams of added sugar per day. Every teaspoon is 4 grams, so you really should be consuming only about 2 teaspoons per day of added sugar. The average American daily intake? 41 grams. And that’s AVERAGE.
Sugar comes in many forms on nutrition labels – and it’s not just high fructose corn syrup that is the problem. The backlash against HFCS has actually become a good thing for the food industry – they take it out of their food, add back in a ton of sugar, and then sell it as a health food because it doesn’t contain HFCS. Now I’m no fan of HFCS, but your body reacts the same way to that as a million other sugars, even natural sugars. But the difference between naturally occurring sugar in fruit and sugar in a soda is that the fruit has the digestive benefit of natural fiber. Most people don’t get a sugar rush from eating apples, and they get full on apples before they could eat enough to produce that effect. Getting a sugar rush from something like soda also means that your pancreas produces insulin to deal with it, which blocks the receptors that tell your brain you are full. Which is why you can often mindlessly eat junk food way past the point of excess without ever thinking you are full.
All of the metabolic diseases that Americans are sick with – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes – have links to excess sugar consumption. And the average American has no idea how much they are consuming, because sugar doesn’t just appear in things like cookies and soda that we know are “sweet.” Virtually every processed food has added sugars – even ones that we would traditionally associate with health, like yogurt.
The film also touches a lot on the impact of this sugar intake on children, and how it’s particularly harmful to them because it sets them up for a lifetime of trouble. And we don’t do them any favors by marketing the food specifically to them (which the industry actually claims they don’t do). Yet somehow, 50% of schools in the U.S. serve fast food directly from restaurants. There are actually Pizza Huts in schools.
Speaking of industry, when the World Health Organization released a report that sugar was the primary culprit for the “obesity epidemic” and recommended that no more than 10% of daily calories come from sugar, the U.S. Health and Human Services lobbied the WHO to take that information out of the report, and threatened to withhold the U.S. contribution to the WHO. The WHO caved, took it out of the report, and the U.S. extorted the WHO out of making a recommendation in the interest of public health. Government for the people, indeed.
Fed Up has much more information on all of these areas I’ve touched on, and the cinematography is really engaging and well done. Many different types of experts are interviewed, and virtually every possible industry company was asked to participate and declined. I’d definitely recommend that people give it 90 minutes of their time – particularly if you struggle with sugar (or if you have kids that eat a lot of processed foods).
I had one significant issue with this documentary, and that’s the constant focus on weight as an indicator of health. The documentary frames itself around the “obesity epidemic,” but I keep referring to it in quotes because I think it’s a misnomer. We don’t have an epidemic of obesity – we have an epidemic of metabolic disease. The film itself points out the staggering statistic that 40% of people who are in the normal BMI category actually have the exact same underlying metabolic conditions as people who are overweight or obese. It isn’t what you weigh. It’s what you EAT. You can be fat and healthy. (I know this because my scale and bloodwork say I am both overweight and super-humanely healthy.)
So then why are all the kids interviewed in the film severely overweight? Why not interview a “skinny fat” person – a kid who lives on nothing but sugar and is on their way to diabetes, but they’re skinny? Because it’s a lot easier to stigmatize and shame fat people than it is to convince the public that skinny people are just as unhealthy. One poor 12 year old girl who was interviewed just kept crying. They used her shame to make a point. Why not interview a 12 year old girl who has significant behavioral issues that result from being hyped on sugar constantly? Because we don’t really care how healthy our kids are as long as they are not fat. No individual parent would say that, but collectively, it’s true. So while the film seeks to tell people that fat people aren’t responsible for their own “condition” because they have no idea what their diet products are doing to their bodies, I feel like it’s a hollow message, since it’s directed at only a portion of the people who need to hear it – the ones we don’t like to see because their bodies bother our sensibilities.
As a nation, we want the government to protect our public health. Look at the outcry over Ebola and the CDC handling of it. But diabetes is going to kill many more people, including children, than Ebola ever will in the United States. But we don’t mind that our government panders to industry and its wealth instead of keeping us safe. If kids went to school and drank water that was contaminated, there would be a public outcry. But they go and eat Pizza Hut – being told by industry that it’s a vegetable – and we do nothing.
So am I fed up? Yes. Have been for a long time. And I’m inclined to write another letter to legislators the next time health standards are up for debate.
See the documentary no matter what you weigh and you will learn something. But especially consider it if you are a “normal” weight and think you’re immune to health problems from your diet. Because you aren’t. None of us are.