‘Fed Up’ Portrays Obese Kids as Victims in a Sugar-Coated World

| May 19, 2014 | 2 Comments
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Maggie Valentine, 12, is a child featured in the film Fed Up. Photo: YouTube

Maggie Valentine, 12, is a child featured in the film Fed Up. Photo: YouTube

Post by Peggy Lowe, The Salt at NPR Food (5/19/2014)

Just who’s to blame for the childhood obesity epidemic? Over the years, the finger has been pointed at parents, video games, Happy Meals and the hamburgers in the school cafeteria.

A new documentary, Fed Up, alleges it all boils down to simple substance most of us consume every day: sugar. The pushers of “the new tobacco,” according to the film, are the food industry and our own government.

With a mix of dramatic music, scary soundbites and powerful images of kids injecting insulin into their chubby tummies, Fed Up argues the children are not to blame. For the rising number of overweight and obese kids, the mantra of “eat less, move more” is an impossible goal. They simply can’t circumvent the onslaught of marketing that has made them into junk-food junkies, the film says.

“What if our whole approach to this epidemic has been dead wrong?” the film’s narrator, TV journalist Katie Couric, says in the film’s opening.

Hoping to do for childhood obesity what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change, Fed Up takes on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and Big Food: Coca Cola, Nestle, Kraft, and Kellogg, to name a few. Laurie David, who produced the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, is executive producer along with Couric; Stephanie Soechtig is the director.

The film sometimes resorts to hyperbole to describe the obesity epidemic and its related health costs, but the message is backed up with sobering statistics and policies that got us here.

Childhood obesity rates have grown exponentially in the past 30 years. And they’ve tracked with the huge increase in sugar added to packaged food to make it “hyper-palatable,” as one scientist says, during the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s.

All the while, the food and beverage lobby spent millions winning political battle after political battle to defend their place in the market, as Reuters reported in 2012.

The film features scientist-doctors like Robert Lustig and David Ludwig, and real food advocates like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Mark Bittman. Couric also takes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to task, as well as former President Bill Clinton, for failing to combat the problem during his administration.

But the film’s true stars are several overweight children who are trying – and failing – to lose weight. It’s heartbreaking to watch as the kids tape private video diaries of their struggles, with fears of death and tears of frustration.

“I want people to know that childhood obesity isn’t as simple as TV and press make it seem … and even Mrs. Obama,” says a tearful Maggie Valentine, a 12-year-old girl who weighs more than 200 pounds. “No matter how hard you try, it’s always going to be an ongoing battle.”

The food industry, which got a lashing from the film Food, Inc., is already fighting the message of Fed Up, despite its still limited release.

The loudest cry is coming from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has launched a website called Fed Up Facts that mimics the plate-and-menu graphics of the documentary’s website. It claims, among other things, that childhood obesity rates have dropped by as much as 43 percent, and obesity rates overall have plateaued.

A spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is also the lead in fighting state’s GMO labeling efforts, did not respond to The Salt’s request for comment on the film.

The Center for Food Integrity, a Kansas City-based non-profit that gets funding from dairy, soybean, poultry and pork producers and companies like ConAgra, Monsanto and Tyson, is also preparing to battle the message of Fed Up. The group’s talking points and social media tips urge farmers to engage in what it calls “values-based discussions about today’s food system.”

Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity, tells The Salt that the film errs in singling out sugar as the culprit in childhood obesity. And many companies like Nestle and General Mills are already reducing sugar in products like breakfast cereals, he says.

A list of individuals and organizations who declined to be interviewed by the filmmakers of Fed Up. Photo: Courtesy of Radius TWC

A list of individuals and organizations who declined to be interviewed by the filmmakers of Fed Up. Photo: Courtesy of Radius TWC

“Obesity is this reality that we are consuming more calories than we are burning off and that’s easy to do in our society,” Fleck says. “The reality is we are a society that’s busy. We want convenience foods. We drive everywhere. We don’t walk like others in other cultures.”

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who appears in Fed Up, says it’s becoming increasingly common for companies to create “front groups” to try to help shape the public discourse. She names the Center for Food Integrity as one such group.

“What’s going on here is that the food industry has a credibility problem,” Simon says. “So they funnel their money into these front groups that can look like they’re doing this with the sheen of credibility — and sometimes even scientists — that are bringing the industry messages into the public discourse.”

The public discourse, Simon says, is finally questioning whether individuals are to blame when it comes to childhood obesity. Fed Up will help that conversation, she says.

The film concludes with a list of the 20 companies, industry groups and politicians who refused to talk to the producers.

Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media.

Copyright 2014 NPR.

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Food and Health-related stories from NPR including NPR Radio; NPR's food blog, "The Salt"; NPR's Health News blog, "Shots"; NPR's Breaking News blog "The Two-Way"; NPR's economy explainer "Planet Money"; food-related technology news from NPR's "All Tech Considered"; and food series "Kitchen Window."
  • Bob Koelle

    “Fed Up argues the children are not to blame. For the rising number of overweight and obese kids, the mantra of “eat less, move more” is an impossible goal. They simply can’t circumvent the onslaught of marketing that has made them into junk-food junkies, the film says.”
    I wouldn’t blame children either, but color me unimpressed. Why are the kids so under the influence of marketing? Do the parents have no impact on their lives? The availability of better foods is much higher now than a generation ago, but parenting is more absent than ever.

  • Jen Thompson

    Most of the parents have no idea how to eat either. Most in the film were overweight. I remember the junk food ads when I was a kid in the 70′s. That’s why more and more people in my age group are getting sick. Doctors know nothing about nutrition, unless it’s a good chiropractor. The parents think they are giving them healthier choices with better cereal and lowering fat because that is what is still being taught. It’s a crock. If they knew how to help their kids, they would. This is big business not bad parenting. I’ve lost 120 lbs in 8 months eliminating sugar and grains and eating healthy fat and protein. I’ve also come off 11 meds in less than a year. Beat anxiety. Most of the people struggling with their weight would do anything if they knew the answer. They don’t and the dietitians don’t either. Welcome to the fallacy of the government food pyramid and money.