Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Narrated by Katie Couric. (2014, PG, 99 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 9, 2014
This new documentary aims for something very difficult: It takes a tired subject – the obesity epidemic – and completely reframes the conversation. Yes, the film cites a vast number of horrifying statistics: We are reaching a point at which more people die from complications caused by obesity than hunger; 80% of the approximately 600,000 food items sold in U.S. grocery stores have added sugar; between 1977 and 2000, it's estimated that Americans have doubled their daily intake of sugar. The numbers and facts, however, aren’t the point of Fed Up. The film doesn’t preach to or hector its viewers. Instead, it takes the novel approach of showing us how and why most everything we thought we knew about the subject is wrong. Conventional wisdom has told us that eating less and exercising more is the solution to obesity. Fed Up instead argues that individual efforts are doomed to failure; the problem is that the food we consume – no matter the portion – is making us sick.
Fed Up cogently builds its case while showing us how everything we’ve learned about food and exercise over the past 30 years needs to be tossed out. As prevalence of fat-free foods grew during the Eighties, food manufacturers began adding sugar to their fat-free to make them more palatable. Moreover, sugar is addictive. One study cites 40 cocaine-addicted lab rats out of 43 that chose sugar water over cocaine when given the option. As our waistlines grew, so, too, did the number of businesses (gyms, weight-loss centers, bariatric surgeries, and the like) that thrive on our obesity. Also profiting are the farmers who receive governmental subsidies for their corn, which is turned into high fructose corn syrup and other sugarlike additives. The effect of Fed Up is to take the onus off the individual, who faults him- or herself for a lack of will power when the problem is really that they are addicted. The film makes this reality abundantly clear by its focus on a few families whose conscious efforts to lose weight are constantly stymied by the reality that not all calories are created equally. The children in these families, who recount their struggles with weight loss, are particularly poignant as their progress is constantly undermined by school cafeteria offerings, the ubiquity of food advertisements, and the food industry’s unregulated approach to lacing their products with sugar.
Even our First Lady isn’t safe from this documentary. Fed Up contends that Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity and her Let’s Move campaign have been co-opted by the food industry. Ever notice how no one ever talks anymore about her vegetable garden on the White House lawn and its consequent argument for the consumption of freshly prepared foods over the processed varieties? The majority of her focus has shifted to the Let’s Move campaign, which again places all the blame for obesity on the individual. The filmmakers want to correct this by turning us into smarter consumers who reject the pap doled out to us by Big Food. The executive producers, Katie Couric (who also narrates Fed Up) and Laurie David, are professional dialogue changers – Couric with things like her televised colonoscopy, and David, who also produced alarming global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. They aim to enrage consumers and make us fed up, and thereby goad the food industry to satisfy the appetites of newly informed consumers.