Ten years ago, Morgan Spurlock’s super-sized diet showed audiences just how drastically fast food could affect one’s physical, physiological and psychological well-being. Around the same time, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation exposed an industry at the helm of a nation’s obesity epidemic. Now, in 2014, news anchor Katie Couric and An Inconvenient Truth producer Laurie David have served audiences another portion of healthy, thoughtful subject matter about the food we eat and what it is doing to us.
Fed Up is a sometimes effective, sometimes questionable doc that wants to figure out why a nation filled with low-calorie options and raised on exercise videos still has trouble losing weight. The results are hardly revelatory, but that does not mean Stephanie Soechtig’s film is worthless viewing, especially for students and families. Even if there are oversights throughout, the doc raises some important concerns.
Over montages of alarming news reports, graphs and graphics, Couric narrates about how she wonders whether the current approach to dieting and exercise is an ineffective way to deal with a high calorie intake. Fed Up focuses on sugary diets as the reason why two out of three kids are either overweight or obese. Couric explains that when food companies shelved products that were high in fat, they inserted artificial and added sugars in those same products but advertised the food as low-calorie options. However, these sugars are addictive, left unabsorbed in the body and just sweet enough to make people crave these choices even more.
The World Health Organization recommends that no person consume more than six teaspoons of sugar a day. However, many of these supposedly health-conscious food items, from granola bars to yogurt, have about as many teaspoons of sugar as potato chips and Fruit Roll-Ups. Moreover, since corporations who serve candy, cookies and cereal have a lot of money to sell their yummy options through commercials aimed at kids, it is children who become the most affected by adopting junky favourites for life. It also does not help that candy bars and soft drinks are readily available at virtually any store check-out counter. Hence, the increase in childhood obesity.
Soechtig’s doc also follows a few overweight teens from around the United States and examines their failed efforts to lose weight. One teen, Maggie, tells us at the beginning that she cannot understand why her resolve to exercise, which includes rowing and after-school sports, has not worked. She wanted to join Weight Watchers, but the minimum age is 18. Maggie is only 12. Another, 15-year-old Brady, is made fun of for being tubby. The first time we watch him discuss his desire to lose weight, he pours big clumps of salad dressing on his food.
Fed Up is more straightforward and pedagogical than Super Size Me, but it is not as fascinating. (The only moment that gives viewer a wicked laugh reminiscent of Spurlock’s comical approach is when a McDonald’s representative testifies about advertising to children.) The most interesting attribute of the doc is how Soechtig compares the sugar to tobacco. People know that sugar and tobacco are unhealthy, yet this does not curb the efforts for some to adopt a healthier diet or quit smoking. When news of cigarette addiction became a hot item in the late 20th century, the public mounted a large-scale campaign to limit access to cigarettes, fasten warning labels on the packets and halt advertisements.
Few kids today would deny drinking a Coke, but most would probably grimace at the thought of smoking a cigarette. If young people recognize that smoking causes cancer, shouldn’t there be an effort to promote how sugar causes diabetes – a disease that an estimated 1 in 3 Americans will have in their lifetime at the current rate? Americans have doubled their sugar intake over the last 35 years, and this is directly related to why 1 in 3 Americans will probably have Type 2 diabetes sometime in their lives.
Fed Up really wants to be the Inconvenient Truth of food-based documentaries. Similar to how the Al Gore film ended by launching a climate change movement, Fed Up ends with a challenge for the audience. The film’s producers want the viewers to try to push their limits and go sugar free for 10 days, eliminating sodas, as well as food with added sugars.
The issue with declaring an audience challenge is that the odds of it working are very slim. In a scene at the end of the film – fresh in the viewer’s memory as they read the Fed Up challenge at the start of the credits – Brady and his family decide to go on a similar diet. His mom goes an extra step to prepare fresh, whole foods for the family to enjoy together. However, as Soechtig claims, this modified way of eating lasted a few weeks before Brady starting consuming the processed junk that had ballooned his weight. The teen craved the sugar that was missing from this new diet and fell back on old habits.
However, the Fed Up challenge wants the viewer to do exactly what Brady and his family did. What is to say the challenge, which tempts people to go cold turkey, will help them out if Brady only regained the weight back a month later? It seems rather hypocritical of the filmmakers to challenge their audience to undergo a new health regiment that will probably not work, don’t you think?
Herein lies the issue with Fed Up: it has a noble pursuit but it does not give audiences many clear answers on how to improve their health. As a result, the doc is efficient as a primer on what has caused an emerging epidemic of overweight Americans, but not very effective at being a pedagogical tool to help audiences fix their sweet tooth.
Fed Up is an intriguing but hardly revelatory doc that works better as an expose of an American epidemic than as a tool to spur a healthy-eating movement.