Movie Review: Fed Up (2014)

How the Food System Conspires to Make us Hungry

A young person battling obesity in the documentary film "Fed Up".

Film reviewer Peter Travers began his review of the new documentary "Fed Up" this way: "Forget zombies and vampires, the scariest thing onscreen anywhere right now is Fed Up. Even Godzilla can't rival Big Sugar as a weapon of mass destruction." Produced and narrated by journalist Katie Couric, this documentary seeks to bring to light some of the underpinnings of the obesity epidemic, introduce us to some of its youngest victims, and convince us to change our eating habits.

Of course, food companies aren't in the business of nourishing us. They are in the business of selling as much food as they can, and they aren't above using any means necessary to achieve those ends. We are free to use the food industry as we want to, but we'd best get informed about it, and large corporations are not likely to inform us! Therefore, to understand what we are putting into our bodies, we have to turn to other sources, and this movie would like to set us on that road.

What the Film Shows

The filmmakers are actually taking on a lot. They seek to bring the viewers:

  • Information about the obesity epidemic and what may be contributing factors.
  • Profiles of several obese children and adolescents and their families, whom they follow for 2 years.
  • The dangers of sugar, and processed foods in general, including effects on our bodies and brains.
  • The problems with the food industry, including ties to politics and research.
  • Information about the effects of food advertising on children.

I thought I knew all about this, but there were few things I didn't fully realize. For example, I wasn't very informed about the history of fast food/processed food in school lunches. All I knew was that sometime between the time when I went to school in the sixties/early seventies and when my daughter started school in the 1990s, actual cooking in schools had vanished, and in its place were premade meals that were heated up at school - gone was the actual chicken and in its place were chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, and nachos.

What I am now putting together was that when funding for school lunches was slashed in the 1980's, the food companies moved right in to help, with cheap, processed substitutes for actual cooked food.

Also, the movie mentioned some interesting research I didn't know about, for example: when children are watching TV with a bowl of goldfish crackers beside them, they will eat a whole lot more if the commercials are food commercials than if they are non-food commercials.

Good Points About the Movie

This was a well-produced movie. It looks good. It features well-known experts, including researchers such as David Ludwig and David Kessler, authors such as Robert Lustig, Mark Hyman, and Marion Nestle, and science journalists such as Gary Taubes and Michael Pollan. There are a lot of good sound bytes (Ludwig says, speaking of blood sugar reactions to food, "corn flakes with no added sugar are exactly the same as sugar with no added corn flakes").

The movie flows along fairly well. It has a compassionate point of view, helping us to understand the families struggling with obesity. One mother, clearly doing what she thinks is the very best thing, talked about the nutrition in cereal, saying that it is "a good go-to for just about any meal replacement." The film points out that junky food is everywhere - there's hardly a store you can go into anymore that doesn't have a few aisles of it.

I totally understand that people have been conditioned to think of this stuff as "food." Once you buy into that perspective, the world becomes a battleground. The movie seeks to undo this thinking.

I think given the size of its ambition, the movie does a good job of getting its points across. It's fairly light on the science, but that's probably good considering its target audience. It's very strong about showing the connections between the food industry and politics. In describing Michelle Obama's campaign to get people to eat more nutritious food, Michael Pollan said, "The food industry did a brilliant thing - they volunteered to help." Thus they were able to subvert the whole enterprise.

(Their goal is to keep us stuck on calories rather than food quality.)

The movie talks a lot about how calorie counting isn't helpful and demonstrates this when families who change what they are eating lose weight. It hammers home the importance of avoiding sugar and other "addictive," hyperpalatable processed foods, ending with an opportunity to Join the Fed Up Challenge - going sugar-free for 10 days.

Want to join the challenge? Here's help:

Quibbles About the Movie

I am a stickler for facts and there were a few statements that made me roll my eyes a bit. Mark Hyman is apparently fond of saying, based on a rat study, that "sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine." I think that's a pretty bold statement to make based on one rat study. Also, the much touted "this is the first generation who won't live as long a life as their parents". Possibly true (diabetes is rising and that does not contribute to longevity), but we don't know, and there is no sign of it yet.

Also, they were so busy attacking sugar that they didn't really hit other refined carbs very hard (Ludwig's great corn flakes quote notwithstanding). Finally, I think the theater audience that would see this movie is not the audience they are really trying to reach for the most part. I'm hoping that the film has an afterlife of being shown to, for example, school groups, church groups, and so on. That would have a much bigger impact.

Still, these truly are quibbles. Basically, I am thrilled to see a movie like this make it into the theaters, and I hope it is a sign that as a society we are really on the road to fixing our relationship to food.

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