Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Fed Up with “Fed Up”

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. 
  • Villains:  big sugar, big corporations, lobbyists, venal politicians (mostly Republicans), Fox News, Sarah Palin, George W Bush. 
  •  Heroes:  concerned professionals - doctors, scientists, nutritionists, do-gooder politicians (almost all Democrats), Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, George McGovern.
  • 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 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 consensus. Period.

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  “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 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)
  •            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.  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 not epidemic.

(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 end.)  

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 carbohydrate diets.  The consensus was dead wrong according to 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. 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.  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 do-gooders and their apologists, like those who made this movie, are trying to pin the blame on their favorite scapegoats – greedy corporations.

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 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.  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 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 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 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. 

Further Reading
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 and healthier. 
Here are some book suggestions which may help you:
Gary Taubes
"Wheat Belly"

Robb Wolf
"The Paleo Solution"

Mark Sisson
"The Primal Blueprint"

Liz Wolfe, NTP
"Eat The Yolks"

And of course, Dr. Robert Atkins
"Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution"

(*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!)


  1. Not sure that George W. Bush or Reagan should be considered 'smaller Government' types. Anyways, I too think parents are responsible for the eating habits of their children....but what do you do when a generation of people (the parents in this case) grew up with faulty food knowledge that they are now passing on to their kids? Government can't be expected to fix the problem, but it can help in some ways. Perhaps more Government subsidies for cucumbers and less for oil?

  2. Wow, I can't believe there is only one comment here. On a positive note, I found this post very informative on "some" of the bias in this film. But in the end, I found the work in its entirety despicable. I am a physical therapist and my wife a nutritionist. We have a personal stake in the "movement" and the "eating" agenda. Again, the positive. Your analysis was helpful to expose the weakness of the film with regards to the weakness of the McGovern report, and your points about consensus vs. science.

    On to the bad. Let's admit, the film did a lot right, much of that you claim falsely that it did not. "Fed up" did clearly demonize "GLUE" and even gave a clip to show how GLUE foods are processed instantly and affect insulin production. That was one of my big take homes from the film, but somehow you outline that the documentary missed this huge point in favor of the sugar industry. That is just not accurate.

    You tried to make the point that the film was biased towards the big government democrats being the good guys. Did you fall asleep during the section dogging the Obama administrations massive failure and kow towing to the industry that produces "GLUE"? And falsely building a narrative around "Let's Move?"

    Your retort to the documentary reminds me exactly of the documentary itself. Full of relative truths and bias. This type of journalism reminds me of Ronald McDonald himself. "I am 49% bad, but 51% good", so in the end I feel good about my contributions, because the majority of what I say is helpful for society. You build yourself up as the good guy, and build just enough trust to assume that what you have to say is valid and helpful, when in the end your message is still 49% biased gobbledygook. That kind of power is the scariest of all.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kristopher. I did praise the film for getting the "sugar story right", however a full length film about obesity that spends less than 30 seconds on carbohydrate is clearly missing "the carbohydrate forest for the sugar trees". These things are about proportionality. Similarly, the political proportionality of the film is clearly biased. Yes, there are some moments of balance, but not to go all "Godwin's Law" on you, even Hitler occasionally said nice things about Jews.