Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fed Up: sugar is the new cigarette

Released last May 2014
Katie Couric produced and narrates the documentary Fed Up, which might seem like just another film about the effects of the standard American diet on our health, but this one has a very specific and heartbreaking focus: the effects of sugar on children. By the end of the movie, the parallels between the tobacco industry and the food industry are clear: as we mobilized to vilify tobacco for the sake of future generations, it's time to mobilize against the free reign the food industries have enjoyed. Without exaggeration, I can say that sugar is killing us and has been for decades.

We meet a white teenager named Maggie, a Latino teenager named Joe, an African American teenager named Wesley and a white teenager named Brady. Maggie, Joe, Wesley and Brady are all fat, they suffer socially because of their size, and two of them face serious health problems that could cut their lives very short (Joe and Wesley). We watch them struggle to lose weight, diligently following government guidelines that encourage exercise, calorie-counting and the consumption of low fat grain products and other foods. As the documentary goes on, we see these kids give those government guidelines everything they've got, especially Maggie who's very athletic. Sadly, those efforts don't earn them any weight loss at all. By the end of the film we learn why: no diet will succeed that doesn't include reducing sugar and starches, but the U.S. government has always steered clear of criticizing sugar and grains. It just won't antagonize those industries.

We learn the truth about nutrition and obesity through interviews with doctors, legislators, academics and everyday people, and it's horrifying. Since I don't have kids, I had no idea fast food companies inhabit every school lunch room in the country. I also didn't know the food industry is hand-in-hand with politicians, medical organizations and even the health insurance industry. The documentary lays out clearly that sugar and foods that the body processes like sugar (flour, pasta, potatoes, corn, rice and other grains) cause what's called metabolic dysfunction. Metabolic dysfunction leads to diabetes, heart disease and various syndromes and illnesses. It can also cause obesity, but not always! Even if you're not fat at all, you might still have metabolic dysfunction, depending on how much sugar and starches you consume every day.

My favorite parts of the film:
  • A clip of Sarah Palin at the Founders Forum, with a news banner across the bottom of the screen that reads "Palin's Cookie Protest: slams school limits on sweets." She cries, "Who should be making the decisions what you eat [sic] and school choice and everything else? Should it be government or should it be the parents? It should be the parents!" Then a silent shot of Palin standing at the CPAC lecturn, pulling out a Big Gulp soda cup and taking a big drink.
  • Dr. Robert Lustig pointing out that if 30% of Americans are overweight or obese -- and we are -- let's look at the rest of the population. It turns out that up to 40% of the slim people also have metabolic dysfunction. This adds up to 51% of the American population being sick from eating too much sugar. (I would add this: many of those slim people with metabolic dysfunction won't know they have it until they develop diabetes or another disease. And then they'll be shocked because they equated slimness with good health.)
  • Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at New York University, saying: "There are so many industries that make profits off of people being unhealthy that it's in their interest to have people continue to be unhealthy. And so that's why you don't see an enormous national effort to try to improve the quality of the American diet or people's food choices...And that is exactly why you see health insurance companies buying stock in fast food companies. They're just covering their bets." (My jaw dropped.)
  • If by 2050 most Americans will be obese and one out of every three Americans will be have diabetes, where will our future soldiers, firefighters, police officers and other first responders come from? (The military is one of few American institutions in favor of reducing children's junk food consumption, putting me on their side, politically, for the first time ever.)
It's cruel to set kids up with ubiquitous advertising, constant exposure to tantalizing images, and unhealthful products that have been engineered to make them want more. The film shows 15-year-old Maggie weeping in frustration and shame about her body, while Joe needs surgery and Wesley faces serious health consequences. Some argue that we all make our own choices and we can't blame others for what we put in our mouths, but those are the same people who opposed regulating and taxing cigarettes. When our culture actively trains the brain to need harmful substances, our culture has become the problem. The tobacco industry used to target children, but the American people stepped in to shut that down. It's time to do it with sugar.

Fed Up is available on Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play.

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