Ask my husband. It takes a lot to get me to the movies, especially on a Friday night after a grueling work week. But Fed Up is a compelling story, and I already know many of the key players. I’m familiar with David Lustig’s research, read blogs by Mark Hyman and Marion Nestle, devour books by Robert Lustig and Gary Taubes, and exchange enough ideas with Michael Pollan to be acknowledged in one of his books. I wanted to know what they said, as well as how it was said. For the first time ever I was motivated to see a film the first day of release, and I was rewarded for the effort.
GETTING IT RIGHT: A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE
I live and breathe the world of metabolic health for children as well as clients at every age. Fed Up’s creative team mostly gets it right. They pointedly shred the notion that a calorie is a calorie, a ridiculous idea that pretends that the body responds to 500 calories of sugar in the same way it responds to 500 calories of whole food. They poke holes in the assumption that exercise can trump whatever the food supply offers (It’s actually the other way around. Excessive food or the wrong kind of food can readily trump the many benefits of physical activity.) In essence, they expose the obscene adulteration of our food supply, especially over the last 30 years, thanks to the sometimes dubious scientific feats of food technology and the relentless drive for profits from food manufacturers.
The film makers showcase the daunting overexposure of sugar and refined starch (with and without the fat) EVERYWHERE. These women deftly address the impossible world of managing food choices while everyone is feeding the kids mostly cheap and adulterated food, including places kids should be safe like schools, the YMCA, and after school sports programs. I loved that one of the featured families included all their kids, not just their overweight son, and exposed the risk of eating poorly for even “normal weight” children. Fed Up rightly acknowledges that parents can’t do this alone, and touched on a deeper truth. Parents often can’t help their kids because they struggle to manage choices for themselves.
USDA food policy and the role of school food service exposes the meager budgets that schools work with. It is nearly impossible to buy adequate fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, and healthy fats on pennies a day. Even when schools attempt to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, food waste becomes an even bigger problem. Kids throw out what they don’t want to eat.
Marion Nestle deftly points to the absurdity of one government agency charged with both promoting more food production and tackling the obesity epidemic linked to over-consumption of the resulting abundance. Experts now consider obesity an economic issue, and manufacturers produce the cheapest food in the house from subsidized crops. I agree with Gary Taubes. In effect, the government subsidizes obesity.
Money distorts more than the cost of food. Research funded by food manufacturers and special interests continues to confound the scientific arena. I am appalled at the willingness of some “experts” to take on untenable positions regarding sugar and soda in the diet. And yet I am not necessarily against working on behalf of industry. I am a consultant for a McDonald’s owner operators in Southern California (MOASC). How is that OK?
As a consultant to MOASC, I am acutely aware of the slippery slope. For instance, McDonald’s sells a lot of soda. I cringe every time I see the large tanks of coke syrup in the back of the house. But I also know that 70% of soda is consumed at home. That means even more soda is purchased at local supermarkets, convenience stores, liquor stores and the like. My guess is that McDonald’s and every other food venue is not in a position to change the soda game without serious damage to their business. So while I bristle at the sales of soda, I choose to focus on the areas I can make an impact, knowing that every step forward is better than the status quo.
The increasing availability and intake of sugar is a task for government intervention, especially since it’s government policies that distort the cost of soda in the first place. As long as corn is subsidized, sodas will be cheap and sugar will be abundant the the food supply. The government could stop the subsidies and allow all of us to pay the true cost of production. If that is unlikely, consumers will need to continue flexing their muscle and stop buying sodas, as well as all the other products that needlessly add sugar in the mix. As producer Laurie David reminded the audience Friday night, we get to vote with our dollars.
ISSUES LEFT ON THE TABLE
Documentaries like Fed Up are doing the work of hard hitting investigative journalists of years past. Consumers deserve to know how the food industry high jacked the food supply, but they also deserve to consider issues that were not addressed in the film. Here’s my list:
- Despite a more insightful discussion of the issues, Fed Up continues to reinforce the belief that weight is the most critical factor at hand, when it would have been seamless to help viewers shift focus to metabolic health. Weight is a lousy litmus test of health, and the documentary didn’t do enough to dispel myths regarding the number on the scale, ideal body weight, BMI and other false gods. It’s actually easier to discuss healthy eating with parents when you don’t have to debate whether a chubby child is healthy. We need less shame and more promotion of health at every size.
- The diet industry is taken to task, but there is no mention of how the medical world has distorted the issues regarding metabolic health. Most doctors, nurses, and even dietitians continue to count calories and focus on the number on the scale.
We need to pay more attention to body composition and true bio markers of metabolic health.
- Why is fast food readily scorched throughout the documentary, but little attention to the calorie intake and portion distortion of sit down restaurants? Ironically most sit down establishments offer larger portions, sell soda with endless refills, and over feed consumers with sugar, refined starch. and sugar as well. It just costs more.
- When reports of escalating child obesity hit the press, most sit down restaurants offered the same food in “kid’s meals” as fast food establishments. Ironically fast food led the way to offering more fruit, vegetables, and milk at no extra charge. Why no acknowledgement that these institutions can be a force for good? I also believe that kids food should look like what all of us eat, but I think kid’s meals have a place. I don’t know many parents who want to pay $12-20 a meal for their 5 year old, so let restaurants feed them smaller portions of the good stuff at a reduced price.
- The fast food environment has changed. Fast food establishments offer more fresh fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains, even organic eggs, grass fed meat and wild caught salmon. Not one example was discussed in the documentary. Are the salient issues really about where you eat? I think the problem is what you eat when you get there.
- I have clients that tell me that they don’t eat fast food, yet still suffer from diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. Some struggle with their weight, and others don’t. How is it that consumers continue to think that as long as they don’t eat fast food they are doing ok? Could it be that popular yet less than accurate sound bites regarding fast food is partly to blame?
- I like that Fed Up poked at the sacred cows of sports and outside activities, common intruders to the family meal. The thornier issues of excessively long work days, multiple jobs, and too long commutes, didn’t get the air time they deserve. No one mentions the fact that some people don’t have a kitchen, and others don’t want to cook.
- Despite my previous point, I appreciate Fed Up’s emphasis on cooking and family dinners. I prepare almost every meal from scratch at least 5-6 nights a week and know exactly what it takes to pull it off. Basically as a society we do not value the time, energy or skill that it takes to purchase and prepare food day in and day out. Fed Up compares the cost of a home cooked meal with a take out meal in the documentary. The home cooked meal costs less, but this is only true if you give no value to time. In my own experiment, a home cooked meal only cost less when my time was free. As soon as I “paid” myself minimum wage to shop, cook and clean up, the take out meal cost less.
THERE IS MORE TO TALK ABOUT
Fed Up shines a spotlight on food factors contributing to child obesity. But since the project’s inception, there has been much more attention to the role of mother’s diet and metabolic health before and during pregnancy. We are probably not going to move the needle by only addressing what a kid eats after birth. In addition, other factors such as the role of endocrine disruptors and other chemical agents are beginning to be questioned. Even lab rats are fatter today, making it fairly obvious that we don’t yet understand everything that contributes to our current metabolic challenges.
Changing how food is processed is just one piece of the problem. We need to also address how food is grown. Fed Up contributes significantly to the discussion regarding food, kids, and health, there is just much more to be discussed. I gave my business card to Stephanie Soechtig as we left the theater. Let’s see if I get a chance.
Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD enjoys a private practice as a nutrition consultant and works with children and adolescents as well as adults. She writes and speaks extensively about food, nutrition, and metabolic health. Read her blog or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.