The Albert Einstein College of Medicine Blog
By Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D.
June 3, 2014
Maybe it’s time for a national policy of “No American Left on His or Her Behind.”
Recently, the movie Fed Up premiered, with a lot of media hoopla. Produced by Laurie David and Katie Couric, the film focuses on how the food industry is responsible for the nation’s obesity and health ills. You may recall that David also produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Couric’s reputation as a journalist lends street cred to this “documentary,” which she narrates.
I had high expectations going in, but this film was a 90-minute missed opportunity and a big disappointment. I’m concerned about the impact it might have on personal responsibility. The overarching theme is that consumers have been victimized by the food industry, which sabotages us with sugary food that makes us fat.
Making consumers out as victims is nothing short of irresponsible. Besides being condescending and dismissive, it’s a surefire way to get consumers to make no lifestyle changes that might help them.
Full disclosure: in addition to my Einstein work as a childhood nutrition specialist at the Nutrition Clinic of Einstein’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, I am a consultant to food companies and commodities groups, primarily focused on developing more-positive nutrition policies, advocating for product reformulation and promoting better-for-you foods.
What I can tell you firsthand, after working with overweight and obese children for decades, is that I don’t have the luxury of telling families that they’re victims, or that there’s no point in making any dietary or lifestyle changes and that they’re doomed until there is big-time regulation of the food industry. It’s my job to empower and motivate my families, and this movie could ultimately do more harm than good. Another flaw is that the film dismisses food industry–funded research without even looking at the quality of the research.
Ironically, for all its bravado about how much “bias” there is in food research and the industry, Fed Up is blinded by its bias against the food industry.
Seeking Real Solutions
Anytime obesity is pinned on a single cause, it’s almost always a red flag for bias; at the very least it is shortsighted. Obesity is a complicated, multifaceted issue. This is no secret to researchers and health professionals, no matter who funds them. None of that complexity appears in this film.
Perhaps most disappointing is that Fed Up offers no realistic solutions to the obesity problem—and I looked for them. Proposed solutions included putting warning labels on soda, getting fast food out of schools (though it is already long gone from most schools), having celebrities endorse fruits and vegetables and eating what grows in your garden.
These are “solutions” proposed by elite people who live in a bubble, and are useless to the families most affected by obesity. Studies have shown that childhood obesity rises as household income falls. Meanwhile, few, if any, of the people interviewed in the film actually work with patients and consumers. Many are not even health professionals, but instead are food writers or chefs who seem to think the entire obesity issue can be solved with the ease of trussing a turkey.
Looking for Fitness’ Role in Obesity
This movie implies that obese children are exercising all the time, but to no avail. However, a just-released report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that cardiorespiratory fitness in 12- to 15-year-olds plummeted from 52 percent to 42 percent between 2000 and 2012. The study showed while about half of all boys had adequate cardio-fitness levels, only about one-third of girls did. That was independent of race, ethnicity or income.
So the majority of evidence would suggest that children are spending far too many hours in a sedentary state. If sugar and the food industry are culprits, shouldn’t we blame Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for providing us with technology that makes it possible for kids to play games and have social lives without ever leaving their bedrooms?
Would we even have this crisis if every adult and child got the recommended hour a day of physical activity and did fewer sedentary activities? Maybe it’s time for a national policy of “No American Left on His or Her Behind.”
Positive Motivation, Not Blame, Needed
The movie also fails to acknowledge the outstanding work going on inside and outside the industry, such as product reformulation and stricter standards for food advertising. It dismisses the work done by First Lady Michelle Obama and in government and school systems to reverse obesity and change people’s eating and lifestyle habits.
Moreover, emerging evidence is showing some potentially positive results, with the CDC reporting recently that obesity in 2- to 5-year-old children had dropped 43 percent. But positives do not jibe with the Fed Up agenda.
Given the attention paid to the film, I’d hoped for a movie that would help motivate consumers to make healthier decisions about what they buy, what they bring home and how they live their lives. That would be liberating advice, rather than simple blame, because people would learn that they don’t need legislation to manage their lifestyles and food decisions. Blame allows us to “be lame” and make no changes.
The truly inconvenient truth is that individuals cannot expect industry or government to make a greater investment than people are willing to make. Sad, but that’s the truth. On the other hand, when the consumers speak, industry does listen. For instance, consumer complaints got trans fat almost completely removed from the food supply—though trace levels are still permitted by law.
While there’s an argument to be had about what’s behind obesity’s prevalence, this isn’t the movie that does it. Instead, it’s selling sizzle to portray consumers as victims.
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D. is director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, and an Einstein associate clinical professor of pediatrics.
Fed Up Movie Trailer
Upending the conventional wisdom of why we gain weight and how to lose it, Fed Up unearths a dirty secret of the American food industry-far more of us get sick from what we eat than anyone has previously realized. Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig and TV journalist Katie Couric lead us through this potent exposé that uncovers why-despite media attention, the public's fascination with appearance, and government policies to combat childhood obesity-generations of American children will now live shorter lives than their parents did.