Fed Up: A Review

For some time now I’ve heard a lot of praise for the food documentary, Fed Up. Notably, Kevin Smith, the film director known for Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, among others, even credited it for his recent dramatic weight loss

Originally I didn’t intend my first blog post to be a movie review.  But after talking to a number of people who had recently seen the film, and finally deciding to watch it myself, I felt that it could actually work as a good starting point.  Also due to the popularity of the film, for many people it may very well be their first introduction to the relationship between modern health problems, and pre-packaged, industrialized food. 

It just seemed apropos. 

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the premise of the film is that more and more people are struggling with obesity, and are suffering from a myriad of related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. Especially disturbing is the increasingly young ages that these issues are developing, and the viewer gets a front row seat into the lives of a few children to see their struggle firsthand.

The not so subtle culprit for this state of affairs is sugar, and the convenience food industry in cohesion with the federal government that together dictate, peddle, and promote it.  Between standardized dietary recommendations, and aggressive advertising, these efforts have successfully perverted our modern perspective on what constitutes healthy eating.

I strongly agree with the main pillar of the movie’s argument.  There is little doubt that excessive quantities of sugar are one of the major factors in overeating and disrupting normal functioning metabolism.  I think there’s a lot more factors to consider, but getting people to cut out the excessive sugars would go a long way to setting them up for reversing health problems and losing weight. 

One of the really interesting take aways from this movie is that it does a good job quantifying how much of a typical diet of packaged products is composed of sugar. This isn’t something that is very obvious to most of us. But as with most things, small amounts do add up.  It also does a good job of illustrating how excess sugar is processed by the body by spiking insulin, and putting stress on the liver and pancreas.  This stress over time, is what pushes the body beyond its limits, leading to systemic breakdowns, and swollen adipose tissue that we are all so familiar with.

However, while the film’s laser focus is targeted at one very obvious culprit that we shouldn’t eat, it offers very little guidance on what we should. In a way this makes sense. It adds more coherence to what we can unify against. Prescribing a remedy outside the general idea of home cooking and “Real Food” would probably snarl up the fellowship of experts joining in the fight. Yet I can’t help but feel that the little time given to showing what a good diet should include, leaves a substantial void.

I think this was also very deliberate though, for another reason, which brings me to my greatest disappointment about the film. Fed Up portrays everyone, except the food companies, as hopelessly impotent in their ability to make good choices for themselves.

It was really heartbreaking to watch these poor families struggling with what they could do to save their children from what appeared to them as some invisible boogeyman. The viewer can practically see the silent killers rattling away in their kitchen cupboards. And yet the parents are throwing their hands up in defeat without even realizing that they’re literally surrounded by the attacker.  In one scene, the mother of one the children, perplexed at her daughter’s inability to lose weight, laments how they’re doing their best to eat the low-fat “healthy” versions of all their favorite foods.  “See, it has Whole Wheat!”

Ugh..

I get this. I’ve been there. It’s perplexing how obvious a solution can be when it’s right there in front of you. But rather than focus on empowering these families to make good choices well within their control, the movie instead chooses to play off of their victimization. We’re all powerless to do anything about it, and should instead just demand our political authorities to fix it for us.  We should restrict it like tobacco, and force celebrities, by law, to spend equal time advertising vegetables as they do soda and breakfast cereal.

Yeah, that’ll work.

Even the way the movie ends, with all of the children basically failing, (except perhaps the poor kid who had his stomach butchered to starve himself into compliance) is designed to leave the viewer with a sense of helplessness, unable to fight back against the tsunami of the fast food juggernaut.  

One  family manages to wean themselves off of packaged foods long enough for several of them to lose substantial weight and for the mother to drop her hypertension medication.  But then, we’re briefly told that the teenage son who motivated the family to make the change eventually gained all his weight back. 

This left me scratching my head.  What happened?  What did he struggle with that caused him to halt his progress?  Outside the brief vegetable dishes shown, what types of food were they actually eating?  What foods were they suggested to eat?  None of this is explored or explained.  He just simply couldn’t beat the odds.  

At the end of the movie after briefly describing how these unfortunate children have failed in their attempts, it contemptuously asks the viewer, “Are you Fed Up?”, implying that we should just be angry enough to channel our feelings towards the same system that has invested decades getting us to this point in the first place.

I have a very different suggestion: Stop being a victim and do something about it.

Instead of sitting around getting angry, focus on learning what you can do to take control of your health away from doctors, drugs, and “the system”, and back into your own hands. Once you take steps towards this you’ll find out that the answers are right there in front of you, as if they’ve been hidden in plain sight the whole time. Even within today’s modern, dysfunctional food production ecosystem, it is more than possible to reverse these problems.  Yes, it will take some work. Yes, you’ll discover that the odds are often stacked against you. And yes, you’ll have to deal with some conflicting advice and information.  But it is well within your power to make the change.  

There isn’t a one-button magical fix. You have to figure some things out for yourself.  What works for others may not work for you, and vice versa. But wasting time complaining to authorities to fix the problem isn’t going to help you right now. And the likelihood that they’ll “get it right this time” is more than a bit of a long shot. It’s taken them almost 40 years to finally consider the mistake they made about dietary cholesterol, and they’re still dead wrong about fat intake (I consistently blow way past the daily intake recommendations on that one). Do you honestly think they’ll get it right on sugar?

Don’t wait. Start now. No one is stopping you. When enough people recognize good choices from bad, and make the changes for themselves, the food companies and the government will follow suit. It’s happening now. They’re feeling the hit already. Don’t wait on them. Let them catch up to you.

Fed Up has a good message overall.  There is something highly unnatural about the sheer quantities of simple sugars that are discreetly hiding in many packaged foods.  The push towards low-fat has indeed exacerbated this problem.  The food companies are definitely overstating the healthfulness, and biting their tongues when it comes to the toxicity that occurs when greater quantities of their product make up an increasing percentage of our diets.  The government is also very complicit in this, to the point of manipulating studies and recommendations, most likely due to the overwhelming influence these companies have over public policy, and political fundraising coffers.  

But let’s not put the cart before the horse.  Get your own house in order. Become an example for others to follow.  No one can save you from your own bad choices, and bad choices will exist well beyond any new regulations designed to save us from ourselves.  

If you’re floored by the irony that the same review criticizing the movie for not providing detailed answers, doesn’t provide very detailed answers, don’t worry.  We’ll get to that.  There’s a lot more coming.  This is just the beginning.  Sometimes before you can get started on how, you need to first believe that you can. 🙂

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