Junk food is today's tobacco and should be vilified for killing our children, says filmmaker Laurie David about her new movie opening on Friday, Fed Up.
David, producer of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth that rocketed Al Gore to global-warming fame and a Nobel Peace Prize, says this project hits much closer to home — right on your kitchen table.
"If you eat, you have to see this film," she said from New York in a phone interview.
Narrated by coproducer Katie Couric, Fed Up takes a hard look at the growth of "low fat" and "diet" choices in supermarkets and restaurants that turn out to be not so healthy after all, unless you consider an excess of sugar in your diet to be a good thing.
Industry reaction to the film has been muted by limited prescreenings, but after it hits theaters this weekend, it could well ignite a heated debate about America's eating habits. Fed Up will be showing in Washington at the Landmark E Street Cinema.
After the U.S. government issued its first-ever dietary guidelines in 1977 and touched off a fitness craze, food companies responded by cutting the fat out of everything from soups to soft drinks and then marketing the new products as healthier alternatives. Unfortunately, removing fat often makes food taste awful, so to make it more palatable, the industry poured in the sugar — tons and tons of it. The film notes that about 80 percent of the 600,000 items in grocery stores today have added sugar.
Relentless marketing, especially aimed at children, has fueled the fast-food/junk-food boom, although the industry vigorously insists it is simply giving Americans what they want. "Ronald McDonald never sells to children. He informs and inspires through magic and fun," says a McDonald's executive in one segment of Fed Up.
The result, according to the film, has been a doubling of the nation's sugar intake and a corresponding rise in the obesity rate, with enormous and costly consequences. Incidents of type 2 diabetes in adolescents were unheard of in 1980; in 2010, there were 57,638 cases nationwide. Doctors interviewed in Fed Up say that at the rate we're going, a third of Americans will have diabetes by 2050.
"Health care costs are going to bury the country," David said.
Former President Clinton was interviewed for the film, and his comments are woven together with allegations that the food industry is making it difficult for parents who want their children to eat healthy — including, in some cases, by taking over a vast number of contracts to provide school lunches.
"America is still insufficiently alert to the damage we are doing with too much sugar intake," Clinton says at one point. "We could cure 80 percent of the problem if we went back to schools cooking their own food," he says at another.
Michelle Obama has made healthy eating a key part of her "Let's Move" campaign, but the film says that her message falls short. The very name of the campaign suggests that the problem is lack of exercise, not the food supply, and Obama herself has made it clear that she is "not trying to demonize any industry."
David argues that a little demonization is exactly what is needed. A video clip in Fed Up shows Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble smoking cigarettes in an ad for Winston in the days before tobacco advertising was banned from television. David says that if more people understood that sugary foods can harm kids' health, they would start to demand better from the industry.
"I would argue for regulating advertising to children," David said. "The Coke cup in front of Jennifer Lopez sends a message that it's OK to drink as much Coke as you want."
David hopes that Fed Up will have a greater impact on America's eating habits than An Inconvenient Truth has had on the debate over global warming. "With climate change, entire countries have to do something," she said. "With this issue, there's so much you can do yourself."
"I think when they become informed, people will demand better food. We can make fresh food again in schools and save money," she said.
David, who divorced Seinfeld coproducer Larry David in 2007, said that before she started work on Fed Up three years ago, she had an "Aha moment" in her own kitchen.
"I cooked a meal for my teenage daughters — and both of them were talking to me," she said. "We were all talking to each other! It's actually fun. It can be joyful."
David also has a new book, called The Family Cooks, with 100 "fast and easy" recipes for preparing healthy meals. The argument that people don't have time to cook any more, she said, is simply not true.
In fact, she calls it "a marketing tactic."