I saw the food documentary “Fed Up”
the other day and have a lot to say.
“Fed Up” is a film 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, big name cameos, good production, plus all the right villains, heroes, and victims.
big sugar, big corporations, lobbyists, venal politicians (mostly Republicans),
Fox News, Sarah Palin, George W Bush.
concerned professionals - doctors, scientists, nutritionists, do-gooder
politicians (almost all Democrats), Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, George McGovern.
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
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
When all is said and
done, “Fed Up” is the equivalent of a jumbo tub of popcorn ladled with salt and
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 corporate interests twisted the
findings, put pressure on politicians, and got them to water-down the goals.
It makes a great story, but this is pure
nonsense. The government has never
gotten the science right.
Governments don’t do science, they do consensus. Sure enough The McGovern Report was a
turning point, but that’s because the report was based on a flawed consensus!
In 1977 the biggest health issue of the day was thought to
be heart disease. A consensus had
formed among health professionals that this malady 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.
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 can be employed to support the consensus, and if that consensus is wrong,
real damage results.
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
Science is particularly elusive when it comes to diet. One of the big challenges is the
chronic nature of bad eating habits - there is often no immediate negative effect, and it can take years for
health problems to emerge. Another
challenge is the fact that people are all unique in their level of activity,
genetic make-up, and medical history.
Animal studies do not always correlate well with humans when it comes to diet. And finally, controlling variables when
humans are involved over long periods of time is nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, science has been putting a dent in the consensus.
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
, 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 fat, and it’s not just sugar 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)
(low in nutrients)
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. Even if it says “whole-grain” on the
label, it is likely GLUE. These
are the things our government has been telling us to eat more of for nearly forty
years. Of course, when Americans are told to eat these
things, most of what they buy is not whole-grain. Americans have developed a taste for refined, bleached,
white flours and starches, and this was the case before The McGovern
Report. Knowing this, and then
telling Americans to eat more GLUE, is downright insane.
Below is a USDA graph showing how The McGovern Report
actually influenced our food supply:
According to the USDA, fat trended down and carbohydrate
skyrocketed shortly after The McGovern Report in 1977. The graph also shows a similar
availability of carbohydrates prior to the 1950s, but prior to WWII, USDA data
was at best a guess. Either way, back then we ate much less GLUE, and hence obesity and its complications were
(If you are wondering how I can make all these claims and
not provide footnotes and citations, remember this is first and foremost a
movie review. And I'm a blogger not a scientist, Jim!
Suffice it to
say my wife is a nutritionist, and she makes me read all these books. If
you’re interested in reading some too, a good one to start with is Gary Taubes' “Good Calories, Bad Calories”
Taubes appears briefly in the film too. I'll link more sources at the
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 it 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"
In short, the consensus was dead wrong on many levels. Ergo, the premise of “Fed Up” is
wrong: Our obesity epidemic was
not caused by greedy big corporations, but rather by big government do-gooder
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.
I’m not suggesting that we could have entirely avoided this
had the federal government not issued dietary goals based on a bad consensus. We were well on our way to a crisis,
downing Coca-Cola, Wonder Bread, and Mary Janes long before government got
involved. But the government
managed to exacerbate and prolong the situation by repeatedly instructing us to
eat more GLUE, and that continues up to this day!
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
was dead wrong according to him.
Carbohydrate was the culprit, not fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, or
He went on to
correlate the emergence of our obesity epidemic with the advent of a diet high
in refined carbohydrate.
1960’s, until his death in 2003, and continuing today, he is called a denier,
ridiculed, ostracized, demonized, and was even sued. Atkins may have not been
right about everything, but it turns out he and the many others who came before him were onto something.
(Consensus sometimes behaves like religious fanatics - it burns its
heretics at the stake.
that a torch-bearing mob coming my way?)
Now that the flaws in the consensus have been exposed and
millions are dying, the do-gooders and their apologists, like those who made
this movie, are trying to pin the blame on their favorite scapegoats – greedy
The movie makes a huge point of showing how the lobbyists and big food corporations pressured politicians to tweak the government recommendation in their favor. Admittedly, these parties had their own economic
interests in mind, and they did put pressure on politicians who predictably
folded. But in the end, none of it had any effect because the consensus was wrong in the first place! The McGovern Report’s very
first goal was for us to consume more carbohydrate, much of it from GLUE. Blaming this epidemic on efforts to water-down government reports is like blaming a butterfly for a hurricane!
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
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. 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
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
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 exacerbated and
prolonged this epidemic. How
likely is it that even bigger government can solve it?
NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg is featured near the end of 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: there is no distinction between children and adults. We are all children in the eyes of the
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 making the right choices. In the very next clip she is seen
sipping a Big Gulp. The
implication is clear: the
filmmakers are painting Palin as irresponsible and they do not believe she is capable of making responsible choices for her kids. Therefore Palin and all parents need big government to do that for them. Of course, the Big Gulp was a
prop Palin employed in defiance of Mike Bloomberg’s attempted ban on big 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. That would be a big
help. But “Fed Up” is too busy
covering for big government’s mistakes and demonizing big corporations to ever
get that helpful. The movie suggests a ban on sales and ads for "junk food", which according to it's own definition would include such items as cheese, egg yolks, and a hamburger patty!
If government wants us to change our eating habits, they
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 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 can it come from politicians who sell policy to the highest bidder
(from either 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
Here are some book suggestions which may help you: