(Revised and abridged to coincide with the broader release of "Fed Up")
“Fed Up” is a new documentary about diet, health, and the epidemic of obesity and its complications. Made by executive producers Katie Couric and Laurie David, and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, the film chronicles the struggles of a handful of overweight kids and intersperses their stories with interviews of politicians, scientists, and practitioners explaining how we got here and how to fix it.
If you have not heard of this film, you will soon. “Fed Up” was one of the hardest tickets to get at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Apparently food and diet are very potent topics. And this film is potent. It has all the right elements for a successful documentary: a scary health story everyone can relate to, a big name narrator - Katie Couric, good production, plus all the right villains, heroes, and victims.
- Villains: big sugar, big corporations, lobbyists, political villains (mostly Republicans), Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, George W Bush, etc.
- Heroes: concerned professionals - doctors, scientists, nutritionists, political heroes (almost all Democrats), Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, George McGovern, etc.
- Victims: kids, minorities, the poor.
Unfortunately, “Fed Up” is deeply flawed. While the movie does do a good job of telling the sugar story, it misses the carbohydrate forest for the sugar trees. It also has an overt political agenda which blinds it from seeing the true culprits. Along the way it glosses-over and misrepresents some key elements and ultimately alludes to the wrong solutions. When all is said and done, “Fed Up” is the equivalent of a jumbo tub of popcorn ladled with salt and trans-fats - you will enjoy it while it lasts, but it will leave you worse-off in the end.
Here’s the movie in summary:
- Too much sugar in our diets has led to an epidemic of obesity, which has led to a host of health problems, and ultimately will lead to premature death for millions. Children are most at risk.
- Greedy big corporations and lobbyists threw money at venal politicians, and got them to conspire against our health interests, which caused it all.
- Therefore, the cure is for big government to step in and stop the greedy corporations from harming us for profit.
According to the movie, a key turning-point which led to our obesity epidemic was a 1977 government report titled “Dietary Goals for the United States”, aka The McGovern Report. This was the first time the federal government officially weighed-in on diet. Here are the report’s six goals:
In the “Fed Up” version of the story, The McGovern Report and subsequent government efforts had the science right, but big greedy corporations and their lobbyists twisted the findings, put pressure on weak politicians, and got them to water-down the government recommendations.
It makes for a great story and a powerful documentary, but it is pure nonsense. The government has never gotten the science right! Ergo, the central premise of “Fed Up” is wrong: Our obesity epidemic was not caused by greedy big corporations, but rather by big government hubris, mistaking consensus for science, and incompetently engineering the diets of three hundred million unique individuals. This is the real story behind our obesity epidemic.
Governments don’t do science, they do consensus. In 1977 the biggest health issue of the day was thought to be heart disease. A consensus had formed among health professionals that heart disease was largely due to a diet high in meat, eggs, and dairy. Fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol were our main enemies, with sugar and salt bringing up the rear. The government accepted the consensus and mistook it to be settled science.
The late author Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”, “Andromeda Strain”, etc) had some choice words about the difference between consensus and science:
I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.
When government mistakes consensus for science, it doesn’t just print a flawed report. A cascade of bad decisions and policies result with untraceable negative consequences. Subsidies, taxes, penalties, regulations, etc. all get employed to support the flawed consensus, and real damage can result.
For instance, we now know that McGovern’s first goal – to increase carbohydrate – was a monumentally bad one. Since the consensus was that we should eat less meat, eggs, and dairy - all sources of protein and fat - we therefore had to increase the only thing left - carbohydrates. The text of the report stresses increasing primarily "complex carbohydrates like whole-grains, fruits, and vegetables”. Sounds harmless right? Eh, not so much.
We now know that many of the so-called complex carbohydrates, like the ones The McGovern Report told us to eat for 60% of our diet, are just as bad as sugar. There is no metabolic difference between a modern whole-wheat bagel and a can of Coke. In fact, according to William Davis, MD, author of “Wheat Belly”, modern whole-wheat flour is more glycemic (blood sugar spiking) than even table sugar!
It turns out that overeating bad carbohydrates is what is making us obese. It’s not sugar alone as “Fed Up” would have us believe! Some of those bad carbohydrates are the very ones our government has been pushing on us for nearly forty years.
I call all the bad carbohydrates GLUE. Any carbohydrate is GLUE if it meets these criteria:
- GLycemic (blood sugar, and/or insulin spiking)
- Un-nutritious (low in nutrients)
- Energy-dense (highly caloric)
GLUE includes all sugars and sweeteners, refined fruit and fruit juice, refined grains including anything made from flour, and refined starches. (In general, the less a carbohydrate looks like its original form, the more likely it is GLUE.)
This puts many so-called complex carbohydrates in the GLUE category, including pasta, crackers, bread, cereal, and some rice. These are the things our government has been telling us to eat more of for nearly forty years! Even if it says “whole-grain” on the label, it is likely GLUE. "Fed Up" spends all of 30 seconds talking about carbs other than sugar! All of the morbidly obese kids and families featured in the film are not just sugar addicts; they are carb and GLUE addicts, which is completely ignored by the film.
The second, third, and fourth goals of The McGovern Report were concerned with reducing fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. We now know that fat does not make us fat, that saturated fat does not cause heart disease, and that ingested cholesterol does not raise our bad cholesterol (LDL), but does raise our good (HDL). We now know that the consensus was wrong about all this too.
One of the unintended consequences of The McGovern Report, as the movie does point-out, was the substitution of sugar for fat in processed foods. Thanks to the report’s recommendation that fat be reduced, food companies responded by replacing the flavorful fat with sugar and other sweeteners like HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup). After all, sugar was the lesser of evils according to the report! Moreover, HFCS was thought to be healthier then sugar according to the consensus. Plus, it was cheaper thanks in part to corn subsidies and sugar import restrictions. This made it economical to put HFCS in practically everything. Yay! Thus the report shot itself in the foot - twice.
Another unintended consequence of the report was the substitution of trans-fats for saturated fats. The report singled-out saturated fats, so corporations replaced them with man-made trans-fats. We now know trans-fats are a proven health threat. We also know that the generic recommendation to reduce saturated fat was irresponsible. “Fed Up” does not mention this. (See this from just the other day: "Study Questions Fat and Heart Disease Link")
There never was a unanimous consensus on diet. Dr. Robert Atkins, a NY cardiologist, became famous for popularizing the low carbohydrate diet. His 1972 book, “Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution” chronicled his observation that his patients did better eating low carbohydrate diets. The modern consensus was dead wrong according to him and many others who came before him. Carbohydrate was the culprit, not fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, or just sugar. He went on to correlate the emergence of our obesity epidemic with the advent of a diet high in refined carbohydrate. From the 1960’s, until his death in 2003, and continuing today, he is called a denier, ridiculed, ostracized, demonized, and was even sued.
(Consensus sometimes behaves like religious fanatics - it burns its heretics at the stake. Say, is that a torch-bearing mob coming my way?)
Now that the flaws in the consensus have been exposed and millions are dying, the clueless culprits and their apologists (like those who made this movie) are trying to pin the blame on their favorite scapegoats – greedy big corporations.
That’s not to say that corporations do not play a role. They make our food after all. But corporations only make the products we demand. We were instructed by the consensus and our government to eat more carbohydrate first, avoid fat second, avoid saturated fat third, avoid cholesterol fourth, and finally to reduce sugar and salt. We demanded that corporations supply us with foods meeting those priorities. And that’s just what they did! The fact that we went on to consume way too much of the sugary stuff is not their fault. It’s our fault! The movie gets this basic cause and effect backwards.
Overlooked entirely in the movie is the role of the 1992 FDA Food Pyramid, which doubled-down on the faulty consensus from The McGovern Report. It’s hard to find a more recognizable and influential symbol of our dietary trend the last quarter century. Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, all GLUE, were to be the very foundations of our diet. Again we were told to eat the wrong things by our government.
Ironically, Bill Clinton is one of the film’s heroes and appears multiple times. He was elected president the year the Food Pyramid debuted. He along with his administration bought into the consensus and irresponsibly promoted The Food Pyramid for eight years.
The federal government is still at it today. As I’m writing this, I became aware that the USDA has published a children’s book and is urging grandparents to read it to their grandkids as a bedtime story. The book features cute kittens explaining the current version of the Food Pyramid, which is called “My Plate”. The first food group on My Plate, and the largest, is - “The Grains” – bread, crackers, rice, and noodles. Big government is still mistaking consensus for science, still pedaling GLUE, and still puzzled by the ongoing obesity epidemic!
Finally, there are the movie’s solutions. The main suggestion is to compare the diet caused epidemic to the smoking caused one, and learn from the successful campaign against smoking. On this basic point I concur. But the movie implies more.
The good guys are all big government types: Mike Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, for example. While the bad guys all lean (relatively) smaller government: Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush. As I have shown, big government has largely caused and prolonged this epidemic. How likely is it that even bigger government can solve it?
NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg is a hero in the movie. He famously banned salt, big sugary drinks, and trans-fats from restaurants and stores in New York City. Not just for kids, but for adults too. This is the problem with Bloomberg-ism, and the movie’s implications: we are all children in the eyes of the nanny state.
In the most blatantly disingenuous edit of the movie, Sarah Palin is shown speaking about how parents should be responsible for feeding their own kids and not government. In the very next clip she is seen sipping a Big Gulp. The implication is clear: government is the only entity which can be trusted to make good choices. The edit is clearly designed to paint Palin as stupid and irresponsible. The audience gasped at this edit both times I saw the movie with some muttering aloud, "What an idiot!" Of course, the Big Gulp was a prop Palin employed during a speech in NY in defiance of Mike Bloomberg’s attempted ban on big sugary drinks. Shamefully, the filmmakers don’t reveal that. The courts agreed with Palin in the end.
Surely, government can play a role as it did with cigarettes and kids. Advertising GLUE and unnatural food to kids could and should be barred, as should selling GLUE and unnatural foods to minors without adult permission. But this has always failed because of the consensus definition of "junk food". According to the "Fed Up" and consensus definition, a ban on junk food for kids would include such things as cheese, egg yolks, and a burger patty!
If government wants us to change our eating habits, it should start by admitting the errors of the consensus for the last forty years. The McGovern Report has been proven wrong about fats, meat, eggs, cholesterol, dairy, and now even salt. Those are not the things that are killing us. Too much GLUE and unnatural foods are what's killing us. The government mistook a consensus for science, focused on the wrong culprits, and has been giving us bad advice for forty years.
“Fed Up” misses this incredible story of government hubris, mistaking consensus for science, misinformation, and tragic unintended consequences. Instead, it preaches more bogus consensus – corporations are evil and big government can save us.
The real solution cannot come from a government prone to confusing consensus with science, nor from politicians who sell policy to the highest bidder (from any party). It has to come from people educating themselves. Many people have adopted low-carb, “paleo”, whole-food, and no grain eating habits without the government telling them to, and they are getting thinner and healthier.
Here are some book suggestions which may help you:
Liz Wolfe, NTP
And of course, Dr. Robert Atkins
(*Many thanks to my lovely nutritionist wife Pam for her help in writing this piece, making me read these books, and for keeping me healthy despite myself.)
Originally published 4/2/14. Reposted upon release of the film 5/9/14. Revised and abridged 5/24/14.