An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food

May 14th, 2014

New York Times
by Mark Bittman

“Fed Up” is probably the most important movie to be made since “An Inconvenient Truth,” to which it’s related in a couple of ways.

One of its producers is Laurie David, who also produced “An Inconvenient Truth.” Climate change, diet and agriculture are inexorably intertwined; we can’t tackle climate change without changing industrial agriculture, and we can’t change industrial agriculture without tackling diet.

Like “An Inconvenient Truth,” too, “Fed Up” can be seen as propaganda. (As can “Farmland,” the beautifully shot movie that looks and feels like a Chevy commercial and seems to take as its underlying premise that most Americans mistrust, even hate, farmers. It’s more than a little defensive.)

“Fed Up” says: “Here is a problem, a problem that vested interests have no interest in solving, and a problem that must be dealt with if we’re interested in our survival. It’s something worth fighting about.”

The problem at hand, of course, is the standard American diet, especially in its current iteration, which took shape in the early 1980s after the commencement of the official “eat food lower in fat” recommendations. Those recommendations led to a 25 percent increase in the per-capita supply (and indeed consumption) of calories.

Many of those calories were from sugar, on which “Fed Up” focuses (oversimplifying matters a bit, as far as I can tell, but we can live with that), and the high consumption of which contributes or leads to obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and worse. The vested interests profiting from this situation are Big Food and its allies, who will, it seems, go to any lengths to maintain the status quo — even at the cost of our collective public and financial health. (It’s expensive to treat these chronic diseases, and we’re all footing that bill.)

At some point I have to get to the disclaimers, so here goes: Laurie David is a friend of mine. I’m also acquainted with Katie Couric, the film’s narrator, and half or more of the experts interviewed in the course of the movie. Even worse, I’m one of the interviewees. (A minor one; and at least I’m not an investor.)

I know these people in part because we agree on many if not most of the causes of the current food and health crisis, as well as on the directions we should take. There is little new in “Fed Up” for regular readers of this column, or to those who’ve read a selection of work by Marion Nestle,Michael PollanGary TaubesRob LustigMichele SimonMark Hyman,David LudwigDavid Kessler or any other member of what we might call the professional sane eating brigade.

What matters, what’s exciting, is that “Fed Up” might reach some of the majority of Americans who’ve never heard of any of us but who adore Katie Couric, the former “Today” show co-host and one of the most recognizable women in the country.

The film has three components: a narration of bare facts and not-so-innocent questions by Couric, such as, “Is there a link between our ever expanding waistlines … and dietary guidelines?” and, “What if every can of soda came with a warning label from the surgeon general?” (I said it was propaganda; it’s really a call to action.) There is a series of interviews with talking heads, which bring out the heavy-hitting facts about the dangers of the overconsumption of sugar and other hyperprocessed food. These, in turn, are interwoven with the stories of a few obese teenagers and their struggles to lose weight.

I was at first put off by these portraits, but was ultimately won over. The teens were given flip-cams and asked to keep video diaries, and these nonscripted video selfies, some apparently shot in private in their bedrooms, were sometimes almost unbearably touching. (For comic relief there is fantastic vintage footage, including a priceless clip of Homer Simpson shooting up a donut.)

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we mustchoose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

That “Fed Up” is imperfect — how could a movie that was more than three years in the making, with constant tumult all around it, be otherwise? — is irrelevant. That it suggests that the response of the Obama administration to this crisis — and particularly Mrs. Obama — has been inadequate is also far from paramount. Yes, it’s fair to say, as Michael Pollan says in the movie, that “the government is subsidizing the obesity epidemic.” It’s also true that the Obama administration is the first one to try to do anything positive about this, and that it’s being fought at every turn.

Here’s what really matters: “Fed Up” is new in its bright, peppy, presumably crowd-pleasing presentation and in its target audience, many of whom, we assume, are not New York Times readers. The movie addresses what the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler calls “one of the great public health epidemics of our time.” The greater public needs to know that.

As of this writing, the movie is in 19 markets, and doing well. If it were in hundreds of theaters, it would probably change more lives than any movie released this year, because if people see the film, they will get the message. It’s not a subtle one.

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