Documentary on Obesity Lacks Policy Muscle

“Fed Up” focuses on the food industry’s failure to dish up nutritious options.

National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
May 11, 2014, 6:28 a.m.

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.

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