Review of Fed Up: Same Boogey Man, Some Redeeming Qualities
Hey guys! When I first saw the trailer for the documentary Fed Up, I became frustrated and anticipated the barrage of anti-obesity rhetoric we’d be bombarded with in relation to the film’s promotion.
I actually thought very carefully about whether I would subject myself to the film. With few sanity points to spare, I wondered if it was worth it. But, I also wanted to address the film and knew I couldn’t in good conscience discuss it without watching it. So, I sucked it up and dragged along my fiance too.
Executive produced by Katie Couric, Fed Up seems to be in contest with the documentary produced by HBO and the government and released two years ago called Weight of the Nation. While both Fed Up and Weight of the Nation have obesity as their rally cry (and both start nearly identically by flashing alarming obesity stats on the screen with a solemn voice telling us how we’re all going to die from being too fat), Fed Up’s villain is the government, whereas with Weight of the Nation, the villain is calories. Both films frame obesity as a public health crisis, thus reinforcing the idea (and falsity) that our current weight-focused paradigm for health is valid. You can read my review of Weight of the Nation here, but I’ll give you the low-down: I detested the series.
I wasn’t alone. Even Gary Taubes (the man behind much of our nation’s carb-phobia) hated the movie, but not because he thought it was stigmatizing to fat people (it was), but because he thought its focus on calories (and thus its prescription for the tired “eat less, move more” mantra) was not helpful. In contest to the film, he wrote in Newsweek that people should focus on eating less carbs. I bring him up because he ends up as a talking head in Fed Up, which takes the government, including First Lady Obama, to task for its special-interests-guided nutrition advice and legislation. Basically, the film reveals what we food-politics-bloggers have known forever, that the government is sleeping with Big Food and thus doling out nutrition-related advice that preserves this relationship.
A few of the myths Fed Up sets out to debunk:
- that “eat less, move more” is an antidote to obesity
- that fat people lack will power and simply need to take personal responsibility to lose weight
- that the government should be doling out nutrition advice and rules
- that if you’re skinny, you’re healthy
I love that Fed Up took up all of the above and illustrated how inherently flawed they are, especially since Weight of the Nation framed the above to be true.
So, while I completely appreciate that the film debunks these myths, I think the message gets lost because the focus, ultimately, is still on providing an antidote for obesity, rather than defining what obesity is and postulating something completely new: that our focus on size is another gem the government has passed down to us that is screwing all of us over.
Let’s pull whatever wool we have left from our eyes, shall we? Here are some things you may not know about Big Food & The Govt according to Fed Up:
- The United States extorted the World Health Organization (WHO) to get rid of study it was going to publish that showed the ill effect of sugar called TRS 916 [you can read about what happened here]
- 1977 – Consumers lobbied to regulate the advertising of sugar-filled products to kids; Big Food won
- In 1981, President Reagan cut $1.46B from child nutrition, so schools had to build partnerships with Big Food to be able to afford to provide meals for their students
- 2006 – 80% of schools were under exclusive soda contracts
- 2012 – 50% of schools offered fast-food on campus
- The Food Industry focuses on calories because that way it can blame fatness on people who lack willpower, rather than on their products, no matter how nutrient-devoid, artificial-crap-filled, etc., they are. For example, in 2013, Coke ran an ad instructing people how to count calories and fight obesity while still consuming its products. I can no longer find the video, but you can read about their attempt here.
- Big Food has a predictable script. Whenever the government wants to regulate anything, it calls the govt a “Nanny State” and indicates that it would prefer to self-regulate. What does self-regulation look like? It looks like the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation–a huge-ass group of food companies who “volunteered” to remove calories from their products. Ah, yes, because diet food is what fights obesity. That’s been working so well for us, right? It certainly bodes well for the $66B weight-loss monolith.
- Big Food employs nutritionists, sponsors associations that are meant to improve health and generally monopolizes people and organizations meant to give out impartial nutritional advice
- Why don’t food labels list a % DV (Daily Value) for sugar like they do with other nutrients?
While I’d love to say I can verify the above to be true, some of the stats included in Fed Up are indeed just plain wrong. For example, the stat that today’s children will die younger than any generation. That has already been debunked.
One of the main flaws of the film is that Fed Up wants to have it both ways. It wants to showcase that the government has led us astray through its special interests that fund our MyPlate and school nutrition programs, but obesity itself is a special interest concocted by the government and defined by the flawed BMI. The film never addresses this. That said, the film does acknowledge the limits of obesity as a measure for health. Talking head Dr. Mark Hyman discusses how people can be “skinny fat” (stupid phrase) and the documentary discusses, briefly, how people can look skinny and be unhealthy. It doesn’t however mention that people can be fat and fit, which is a huge loss for truth-telling.
While several of the experts interviewed mention how personal responsibility as an antidote to obesity is bullshit, the main call to action for the film, and its accompanying website, is for all of us to take a 10-Day Pledge to Give Up Sugar, which is an act of personal responsibility. It would have made more sense for the film to advise us on how to actually effect policy change than on how to cut sugar from our lives.
And, that leads me to what I saw as another weakness of the film: its demonization of sugar. Dr. Lustig might as well be known as “the man who hates sugar.” He serves as the film’s predominant talking head, which is fine because he make some great points, but he’s not what I would call a well-rounded voice.
My main gripe with Fed Up, however, is not its demonization of the government or sugar. I think it’s good for people to know that the government is not some impartial entity that is giving us unbiased nutrition advice—we get our nutrition advice from the USDA whose GOAL is to encourage consumption of US commodity crops, ya know what I mean? This isn’t really news to anyone who watched Food Inc. In fact, Fed Up rehashes a lot of what Food Inc discusses, which, yea, is good to know, but it passes a cursory focus on ideas that are truly NEW (at least to the documentary scene) and should be fleshed out because they have the potential to transform how we frame health and fatness. For example, the idea that you can be thin and unhealthy from eating a predominantly nutrient-devoid diet is glossed over like a little foot note, but this is actually HUGE because it debunks the myth that being fat is the best symptom for being unhealthy, when, in fact, the “obesity crisis” hinges on the idea that we should not worry about the effect of junk-food and food justice issues as they relate to thin people.
Here’s a recap of what I believe to be the film’s strengths, weaknesses & missed opportunities:
- Debunks the myths listed above that assume that calorie-counting & personal responsibility are antidotes to obesity
- Questions movement to offer bariatric surgery to children (discusses how low the success rate is and how many risks are associated with it)
- Discusses how the food industry and government work hand-in-hand and how profit is what drives their recommendations, not our health
- Follows around three young fat kids and showcases their struggles to be young AND fat in our society without guiding viewers through an exercise to discuss how stigma affects lives and how films like this, which showcase “headless fatties” and rely on obesity = bad rhetoric to carry its message contribute to stigma. This would have been a great opportunity to pull in someone like Rebecca Puhl, who conducts research on weight stigma, to step in and discuss how “fighting obesity” affects how fat people can actually navigate the world.
- Spends no time defining what obesity is. Takes for granted that we all know the limits, and problems, of defining obesity via BMI
- Relies on expertise from from people who, frankly, I wouldn’t trust. Gary Taubes is a journalist, not a doctor. He is also not someone who has ever been fat and, based on what I’ve read about him, he truly vilifies fatness. I am shocked that someone like him was actually given such a platform on this documentary!
- Doesn’t get critical enough. Issues like poverty are mostly left out of the conversation. Michael Pollan does at one point mention that it is actually cheaper to cook “real food” than to purchase fast-food, but–to me–this showed his culture blindness and privileged station in life, rather than his expertise. I don’t want to go on a tangent about the limits of the “real food movement” for those of lower socioeconomic status, but I’ll briefly say that we can’t just prescribe that people cook “real food” and believe that will solve our health woes. It’s simply not realistic and it’s, once again, a call to personal responsibility.
- Fed Up could have really run with the “debunking myths” theme and gone on to discuss how the push to diet has really screwed with the nation’s collective health
- Fed Up missed the opportunity to really integrate a diverse range of experts. I would love to see someone like Raj Patel–who sees food as a justice issue–integrated into the discussion. I would have loved to see sociologists like Dr. Abigal Saguy discuss how framing fatness as a public health crisis is problematic. I would have loved to see Dr. Linda Bacon interviewed on how taking the focus off of our waist-size and focusing on healthful habits would be a better strategy to improve health than our current obesity rhetoric.
- Fed Up could have showcased programs and schools that are actually making a huge positive difference by improving nutrition for children and adults, including School Meals That Rocks. I love this website because its owner, Dayle Hayes, shows us the amazing things school food service professionals are doing to improve school nutrition.
- Fed Up’s call to action and film could have really benefited by giving us actual policy recommendations.
What do you think? If you’ve seen the movie, what do you think are its strengths and weaknesses?
The Cranky One
p.s. click here to read another review of Fed Up that I truly appreciated.
Tags: fed up