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Documentary on Obesity Lacks Policy Muscle Documentary on Obesity Lacks Policy Muscle

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Documentary on Obesity Lacks Policy Muscle

"Fed Up" focuses on the food industry's failure to dish up nutritious options.


(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This weekend, Fed Up, a documentary that hopes to encourage a fight against obesity, opens in New York, Washington, and other cities. It's being heavily promoted by its producers, TV journalist Katie Couric and Laurie David, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about former Vice President Al Gore's campaign about climate change.

Fed Up has good intentions and raises valid issues, but it is almost two hours long and is so broad in its condemnation of the food industry that it's questionable whether it will find a viewership beyond the people who already agree with the producers' viewpoint, or whether it will have any impact on public policy.


The film, which was previewed last week in a theater in the Capitol Visitor's Center, starts out by blaming the food industry for the obesity epidemic. When nutritionists discouraged people from eating fat, the food industry responded by putting more sweeteners in food to make it tastier, the film says. When people took up the recommendation to drink skim milk, the dairy industry responded by making and marketing more cheese, the film continues. The idea that people can balance what they eat with exercise is wrong, the filmmakers say, because it is impossible to exercise enough to work off the calories.

People who are overweight from eating these foods should not blame themselves but the industry for their constant advertising, particularly to children, a series of academic experts and food journalists say in the film.

But Fed Up then diminishes these points through a series of interviews with obese working-class children about their struggles and failures to lose weight. While the film makes the point that the children are exposed to advertising, the scenes of these families seem to say that working-class people just can't make good food choices or get exercise.


Fed Up contains some fantastic graphics about how the body absorbs food, but its worst aspect is the apparent lack of understanding about how public policy is made. The film acknowledges that first lady Michelle Obama raised the issue of childhood obesity, but it pretty much declares her "Let's Move" campaign a failure because it focuses on exercise and because she has worked with food companies rather than opposing them.

Leftist critics have often said that it was a mistake for the first lady to try to convince the food companies to reformulate their products. But as Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef who also heads the Let's Move campaign and advises the administration on nutrition, said at a recent Consumer Federation of America conference that the idea "that we could change the food without working with the people who are feeding everybody just doesn't make any sense to me."

The film acknowledges that the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act—which requires schools to reduce sugar and sodium and serve lower-fat meat and dairy products, whole-grain breads, and lots of fruits and vegetables—mandates healthier school meals. But it focuses on the two issues on which nutritionists failed to prevail in that bill: the designation of tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable and the unlimited use of potatoes as a vegetable. Fed Up does not acknowledge that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is one hard-fought battle that nutritionists won with the help of the White House. It also doesn't mention that the new school-meal rules are strong enough that the School Nutrition Association, which represents school-meal preparers, and some students are urging Congress to roll back the new rules when child-nutrition programs come up for reauthorization in 2015.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Fed Up is that, while it blames big food conglomerates for the obesity problem, it doesn't give credit to people who have confronted the food industry and doesn't offer any new ideas on how to address obesity in public policy other than bigger labeling on soda cans for sugar content. David said at the Capitol Hill screening, "Whatever issue you're working on, [Fed Up] will help move that agenda."


Couric is challenging people to give up all sugar for 10 days, though the proper term would be sweeteners, because she has said she means high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and juice or artificial sweeteners. Couric is starting the challenge herself on Monday. That may be a good way to get people to talk about the film, but what happens after 10 days? Are people supposed to give up all sweetener-containing products forever?

As people who are well-connected in the entertainment industry, Couric, David and Fed Up director Stephanie Soechtig have big plans for their film. Soechtig said at the briefing that a Spanish-language version will be released this Friday, and she has plans for a shorter version that can be shown in schools.

If the movie is shown in schools, the food industry will undoubtedly demand equal time or produce a competing film. It looks like it will be left up to the techers to point out that the feelings of rage that Fed Up seems inclined to create are useless unless they lead to the step-by-step actions that might actually reduce obesity.

This article appears in the May 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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