|Got a life? Then you won't exercise your way to health in Fed Up.|
«««½ Fed Up. Written by Mark Monroe & Stephanie Soechtig. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Narrated by Katie Couric. At selected theaters.
There's a popular theory that the Roman Empire inadvertently poisoned itself with water from lead pipes. If Stephanie Soechtig's alarming documentary Fed Up is even half-true, then modern Americans are in the process of doing the Romans one better: we're poisoning ourselves too—but on purpose.
By pure statistics, there's no worse health crisis than the explosion of childhood obesity in America. The human cost, including heart disease, early-onset diabetes, joint problems, cancer, et al, is a time bomb waiting to go off in our economy, for the drain of caring for a sick generation for decades into the future is sure to be vast. "We know how to help diabetics who are fifty or sixty years old," declares one doctor in Soechtig's film. "But caring for a ten year-old diabetic who's sick their entire life? I don't know how to do that." The problem has gotten to the point where the World Health Organization has declared obesity a "global epidemic".
There's little doubt of one proximal cause. Americans consume, day in and day out, many times the recommended daily dose of sugar. Over the course of a year we eat the equivalent of our body weight of the stuff. Sugar is not only high in calories, and not only added to virtually every kind of processed food we eat (including ketchup, bread, salad dressing, etc.). It's also highly addictive, rewiring the reward centers of the brain in a way very much like cocaine.
Soechtig (among many others) further argues that there's an ongoing campaign to 1) enhance corporate profits by keeping Americans hooked on sugar, and 2) systematically misinform consumers about its effects—or at least muddy the waters enough to prevent meaningful regulation. The notion that managing weight is merely a matter of balancing calories in vs. calories out—either by portion control or exercise—is, alas, mainly bullshit, because a calorie from sugar does not have the same effect in the body as a calorie from, say, an egg. (The sugar is more likely to end up going directly to body fat). Nor can we simply jog, jazzercise or bike our way out of this problem. As Soechtig notes, burning off just a single 12-ounce can of Coke demands more than an hour of strenuous exercise. Working off that Big Gulp? You do the math.
As for muddying the waters—one has only to turn to the depressing public discourse over Mayor Mike Bloomberg's proposal to limit the size of soft drinks sold in New York City. Restaurant servings of soft drinks—prime offenders in the over-sugaring of America—have risen from an average of 7 ounces in 1950 to a brobdingnagian 42 ounces today. Yet instead of talking about corporate motives for pushing us to consume so much sugar, the discussion tends to devolve to complaints about "the nanny state" and "taking away personal responsibility".
What can calls for "personal responsibility" possibly mean in the context of a highly addictive substance like sugar? As Soechtig rightly notes, a taste for Mississippi marching powder isn't just a matter of rational choice. It's a consequence of brains that are, in essence, wired to over-consume, often from early childhood. Everything about the way the products are sold, from the marketing to the nutritional misinformation to placement in stores to portion sizes, is engineered to override rational choice. As one of Soechtig's witnesses observes, if a recovering alcoholic were placed in a home where booze is everywhere, would it be any surprise he would go back to drinking?
In short, Fed Up presents a devastating case. Soechtig's choices aren't particularly creative, to be sure—this isn't inventive filmmaking, or remotely witty in the way Michael Moore might tackle this subject. It mostly resembles the kind of informational documentary you'd see on CNN or PBS, right before Anderson Cooper. But that doesn't make it any less alarming—and infuriating.
The prophets of personal responsibility are right, but not in the sense they intend. Another way to take responsibility is to collectively demand some regulation of those profiting from making our kids sick. Soechtig cites the example of how Big Tobacco was eventually tamed, despite decades of propaganda, denial, and deliberate misinformation. The struggle against Big Sugar is likely to be even tougher. For our pancreas' sake, is there any time to lose?
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro