‘Fed Up’ movie review: it gets a lot wrong

logoLast night, the Wilton Library presented a screening of the film “Fed Up” by Laurie David which takes the view that excess sugar added to just about everything is a main cause of the  world wide obesity epidemic. The screening was followed by a discussion featuring chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave (and formerly of the now closed Dressing Room restaurant) and Ceci Maher of Person2Person, a local food bank and assistance organizaion, with local filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris as moderator.

The film was partly supported by the local Jesse and Betsy Fink foundation Moral Ground, and was introduced by Jesse Fink. It was directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric.

The central thesis of the film’s scattered interviews and visuals is that of Dr Robert Lustig, who is interviewed throughout. Lustig, in his book Fat Chance presents the thesis that added sugar is the cause of all our dietary woes. The trouble is that Lustig’s views are considered outliers and have not really been scientifically tested. And the idea that sugar is “poison” is just not accurate.

The film follows three morbidly obese young teenagers who struggle with their weight quite unsuccessfully. All are clearly from fairly low income families and the film skirts the issue of class and obesity even though it is clearly part of these youngster’s problems. One of the three ends up having lap band surgery, although as the surgeon clearly notes, such surgery is really not advisable for 14 year olds, and that the potential side effects might be worse than the possible weight loss outcome.

The film shows kids eating fast food and greasy, starchy school lunches and suggests that far too many school lunch programs have contracts with fast food suppliers like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. It really doesn’t show them consuming much that is sugar laden. And in fact, it is these greasy, starchy foods which are most likely to be at the root of their obesity.

Most of the speakers interviewed in the film are writers, politicians and pseudo-scientists like Mark Hyman and Lustig. We also hear from Michael Pollan (of course), food writer Mark Bittman, and pediatrician Harvey Karp. Nutritionist Marion Nestle is one of the few credible speakers, but most of the rest are just opinionators.

The film also denigrates research in the area as having been “paid for by food companies,” which shows a pretty poor understanding of how peer-reviewed science actually is carried out and checked.

Well-intentioned and produced though this film is, it does not really talk to many actual scientists who support its thesis. And it does get a number of things wrong: notably that the current generation’s life expectancy will be lower than their parents. As noted in the review in Science-Based Medicine the CDC projects continuing increases in life expectancy.

The film also claims that more people die of obesity than starvation, but this isn’t true either as Food Insight’s review points out. The WHO claims that 2.8 million people die from overweight and obesity but Oxfam estimates that over 8 million a year die from starvation.

The film also tries to make us believe that obesity isn’t caused by just too many calories, but by the sugar itself. However, this is one of Lustig’s off-the-wall ideas that isn’t supported by science. A calorie is a calorie, and too many of them will lead to obesity: it is that simple, and that difficult.

In fact, the whole idea that sugar causes obesity is wrong. Calories cause obesity, and obesity can lead to diabetes. Sugar is not a cause, but it is definitely part of the problem.

The film also groups diet soft drinks with sugary soft drinks and fruit juices as leading to obesity because it claims that diet sodas initiate a craving for sugar. This has been discredited by any number of papers. It ain’t so and they should know it.

The depressing part of this film is that it presents no hope and no solutions. One child had lap band surgery. Another family changed their eating habits to emphasize fresh foods, which the film called “sugar detox,” and indeed all of them lost weight while they cooked that way. And they regained it when they stopped! They class/income issue is not touched on, but none of these families have a lot of money, and cooking with fresh ingredients is much more expensive, and unlikely to be supported by their budgets long term.

The film, which seems overly long when sitting on hard chairs finally concludes, offering little positive outcomes, and led to a lively panel discussion.

Chef Michel Nischan’s Wholesome Wave is now active in 30 states, helping provide nourishing fresh food to low income areas, and Ceci Maher’s Person2Person provides both food and assistant to families in the Fairfield County area. They noted that local farmers’ markets now double the value of food stamps, and that the most recent Farm Bill provides $100 million in funding to help support this program.

Overall, this is a well-meaning if disorganized film, but it offers little that is positive and gets a lot wrong.

Originally published on Examiner.com on 12/13/14

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