Fed Up Rails Compellingly Against Big Sugar


“This is the first generation that is expected to live shorter lives than their parents,” says Katie Couric, the narrator of Fed Up. It’s an infuriating statement given both the preventability of that outcome and the institutional opposition to the solutions, the primary conflict that drives the film.

For the past decade, basically every public nutrition group, doctor, researcher, diet book author, and health-related entity besides the toothless U.S. Department of Agriculture has been aware that the primary culprit for the worsening obesity crisis in the United States is sugar. Fed Up examines the history of the problem and the institutional resistance to the obvious solution: a legal regime of regulation accompanied by a public awareness campaign modeled on the war on tobacco that began in the 1970s.

Fed Up is a workmanlike documentary, as undistinguished in style as a PowerPoint slide show. It nonetheless finds traction in its depiction of the food industry’s Montgomery Burns–like practices. Food industry lobbyists, particularly those of the various sugar grower associations, have already adopted the same defensive tactics as big tobacco.

Director Stephanie Soechtig includes as part of the film’s media collage clips of congressional testimony from industry representatives illustrating the various legs of their arguments: Sugar is a nutritious part of a balanced diet; food is a matter of personal choice and responsibility; the solution is getting more exercise. That last item is at the crux of blame and shame targeting obese people, so often stigmatized as lethargic and lacking willpower, which are actually symptoms of hyperglycemic metabolic disorders, not the cause.

Industry representatives regularly partner with fitness organizations and such prominent health advocates as Michelle Obama to promote the idea that the cause of obesity is lack of exercise. In the film, an animated graph illustrates the steep growth of the fitness industry, which tracks almost exactly to the rise of obesity in the U.S. Why hasn’t the explosion of gym memberships stemmed the rise in obesity? Fed Up asserts, through interviews with physicians, that exercise can’t burn the number of calories consumed by the average American.

Complicating the issue for overweight people, food industry representatives also point to the availability of “low-fat” versions of junky food. Since removing the fat from food makes it taste bad, manufacturers dump in more sugar — according to the film’s experts, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, most low-fat options are even worse contributors to metabolic disease than their full-fat counterparts.

Driving the point home, Soechtig follows the paths of four obese children in their attempts to become healthy, with varying levels of success. Their schools’ lunches are provided by fast food companies and their districts are subsidized by soda manufacturers who install their vending machines in cafeterias.

Directly targeted by marketers, children exist in an excessively sugary milieu in which Fred Flintstone, who used to appear in advertisements for cigarettes, now sells another toxic substance directly to children. Children don’t make the household shopping choices and have no alternatives at school; nutritionally abandoned by the adult world, they can only eat what’s available.