Analysis/Movie Review: 'Fed Up' indicts sugar as villain in obesity epidemic

Those already aware of the health damage from sugar-laced foods can shift blame for America's obesity epidemic from consumers to various food villains -- Congress, the food industry, America's public schools.

All others might be startled by the multiple-course documentary "Fed Up," with its steady chew of evidence that makes one wonder how this could have happened:

* Eighty percent of the 600,000 food products in the United States have added sugar.

* A growing list of nutritionists now regard sugar as a poison potentially more addictive than cocaine.


Narrator: Katie Couric.

Rating: Documentary, no rating.

* If trends continue, 95 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2035.

Or consider this: Eighty percent of American high schools have contracts with soft drink companies, with 50 percent of school cafeterias serving fast food.

Can we blame people for being fat?

"Fed Up," directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, focuses on the growing link between sugar consumption and the obesity epidemic, with more than 70 percent of Americans overweight or obese, and the epidemic going worldwide.

The well-oiled, high-energy documentary surely will prompt some to advocate changes in food policies while others will hit the streets to protest a nanny-state production.

But while it promotes awareness of what bad stuff we're eating, the documentary doesn't opt to be fruitful in changing the attitude of couch vegetables. And that's the important point: Eating nutritionally, given the American food environment, is becoming ever more difficult for the vast majority of Americans.

Two full hours of exercise are necessary to burn off the calories from a single can of Coke or Pepsi. Then consider the Big Gulp. Even thin Americans have concentrations of belly fat and fatty livers, making them thin on the outside, obese on the inside. It even has an acronym: TOFI.

With sugar, sugar everywhere, and described with 56 different names, nutritionists have begun viewing it the way we do air pollution -- as a toxic exposure.

"Fed Up" features a notable parade of scientists, including Robert Lustig, the "sugar-is-poison" physician from the University of California, San Francisco, a much thinner Bill Clinton and former and current officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Various popular authors and noted nutritionists add some salt.

"Fed Up" succeeds in putting young faces to the problem, focusing on various obese children, ages 12 to 15, and ranging in weight from 180 to nearly 400 pounds. Metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease already are in play.

Their heartfelt struggles grip our own damaged hearts, especially when we witness their efforts to lose weight while surrounded by walls of bad food at every turn. They are served fast food in school cafeterias, with government designation of pizza, french fries and tomato paste as vegetables. Stores have stacks and counters brimming with candies and snacks. At home they eat the standard American diet of processed foods, with snacks spiked with fats and sugar in cupboards or atop refrigerators.

The youngsters talk with passion, shed tears, show determination and speak with wisdom beyond their years about their largely unsuccessful efforts to lose or maintain their weight in a world riddled with bad food. One 15-year-old undergoes gastric-bypass surgery to save his life. Another boy and his family ban sugar and processed foods for five weeks, leading to his loss of 27 pounds that he soon regains.

In "Fed Up," obesity is redefined. It's not overconsumption. Instead, it's the world's No. 1 cause of malnutrition, with obesity deaths worldwide now outnumbering those from starvation. Dr. Lustig explains why. Sugar goes straight from the intestines to the liver, where it turns to fat, causing excess insulin production, which tricks the brain into thinking that the body is starving. Consumption continues sans nutrition.

Villains are plenty.

The food industry protects profits by claiming there's no evidence its products are unhealthy. Cornered, its advocates only recommend moderation. The sole industry spokesman in "Fed Up" comes off looking foolish.

The USDA is responsible for promoting agriculture, including dairy, cheese, beef and high fructose corn syrup, while establishing nutritional standards that -- surprise -- emphasize the aforementioned.

Congressional efforts to improve nutritional standards, ban advertising of sugar-laden foods to children, and even taxing bad foods, routinely are killed off by food lobbyists proclaiming "nanny state" overregulation or violations of freedom of speech and commerce.

Even Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity started out nobly but got felled by lobbying and politics. She now backs down from demonizing types of food with a focus on exercise.

The Center for Consumer Freedom criticizes "Fed Up," warning that people should equate calories in with calories out, while criticizing "Fed Up" as "Bloomberg-inspired nannyism," referring to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his efforts to ban the sale of huge soft drinks. It feeds into the documentary's claim that the food-industry tactics mimic the tobacco industry's decades ago to stave off regulation of cigarettes.

But "Fed Up" maintains the attack: Seventy-five percent of all health care costs involve metabolic diseases, it proclaims, with "a tsunami" of rising health-care costs as the epidemic continues. If we're not brought down by obesity, we'll be felled by its health care costs.

And perhaps the biggest proclamation: "Soda is the cigarettes of the 21st century."

So the food battle is on and "Fed Up" aspires to escalate it into full-fledged war.

But in an unfortunate irony, as typified by the U.S. military: Americans are reaching a point where they're too fat to fight.

Playing at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.

Post-Gazette health-science writer David Templeton has written about diet issues affecting health, including the health impact of sugar consumption. Contact: or 412-263-1578.

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