Fed Up: Katie Couric steps up to challenge industry’s role in the childhood obesity crisis

The documentary Fed Up, which recently premiered at Sundance, makes the case that big business is responsible for the nation’s childhood obesity crisis. Directed by Stephanie Schoetig and narrated by Katie Couric, the film follows a group of children over a period of several years, documenting their struggles to pursue healthy lifestyles through diet and exercise, and the impact the food industry (and its affinity for sugar) has on their efforts.

An article by Amy Nicholson in The LA Weekly discusses the film’s premise in more detail:

The flick starts with a simple question. In 1977, George McGovern introduced the McGovern Report, which outlined healthy dietary goals for the country. Why, then, have Americans gotten fatter—exponentially so, especially the young?… 

Fed Up traces back the last 35 years and makes a convincing case that big business is to blame. (When isn’t it?) The food industry responded to the McGovern Report by flooding the grocery aisles with “healthy” chips, cookies, drinks, and cereals that cut fat while quietly upping the sugar. Since then, sugar consumption has doubled. It’s not because we’re pounding down the pound cakes—a breakfast of orange juice and a bowl of processed cereal maxes out our ideal sugar intake for the rest of the day.

Fed Up isn’t the first documentary to help shed light on our obesogenic food environment and the role that big business has in creating and maintaining it, and then casting the blame on individuals (in the case of Fed Up, kids) who end up overweight. Feeding Frenzy: The Food Industry, Marketing, and the Creation of a Health Crisis, a 2013 documentary, makes a similar case. So does HBO’s 2012 Weight of the Nation documentary miniseries.“As far as I can tell, the only beneficiaries of the nation’s obesity problem are the food companies that are selling all the food that it takes to get people overweight,” says Dr. Kelly Brownell, previously of Yale’s Rudd Center and now dean of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, in the fourth segment of the series. “And the diet industry that goes around trying to correct the damage afterwards.”

He continues, “The idea, especially fostered by the food industry or its political allies, is that the reason we have an obesity problem is people aren’t personally responsible enough… But it’s a very hard argument to defend. Rates of obesity have gone up year by year by year for a long time now.  It’s pretty hard to argue that people were less responsible in 2009 than they were [before].”

“[S]chools are being used to market junk food to students. [It’s time] for parents to speak up and demand change, starting with schools and the PTA.”

The takeaway: The fight against childhood obesity demands that we all step up

The LA Weekly posits that Fed Up may be “poised to be the Inconvenient Truth of the health movement”—the call to arms that finally motivates the coordinated outrage we need to muster to push food companies and policymakers to take meaningful action to change our food environment. We hope so. In the meantime, it’s heartening to see major media figures like Couric pushing to hold major brands accountable for their marketing, their ingredients and their business practices.

The rest of us have a role to play in holding big food and big soda accountable, too. How? One good step is speaking up. As Brian Lazarte, Fed Up’s editor, said in a Q&A with high school students in Utah: “If you guys start speaking up and tell your schools, your teachers, your principal that ‘we don’t want it,’ that’s the first step. Now that you’re armed with the information you have from the film, there’s so much more you can do with that.”

Calling on parents to advocate against junk food marketing in schools, Kentucky-based childhood obesity prevention advocate Casey Hinds made a similar point in a recent comment on this blog. “[S]chools are being used to market junk food to students. [It’s time] for parents to speak up and demand change, starting with schools and the PTA.

Hinds and Lazarte are right: change starts with each of us. If you’re ready to make a difference, it’s time arming yourself with the right information. The following resources offer a starting point: