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Fed Up

by Kilian Melloy
Friday May 9, 2014
A scene from ’Fed Up’
A scene from ’Fed Up’  (Source:Atlas Films)

The Katie Couric-narrated documentary "Fed Up," from director Stephanie Soechtig, serves up some alarming stats and traces contours of industry wrongdoing familiar from the "selling us death" model of big tobacco and, to an extent, big oil.

Far more direct than Richard Linklater's 2006 project "Fast Food Nation," and carrying more gravity than Morgan Spurlock's larky (if often disgusting, in the sense of putting you off your food) "Super Size Me" (2004), "Fed Up" is something of a clearinghouse for theories about the obesity epidemic that threatens not just America, but nations around the world.

The costs associated with obesity are astronomical, both in dollars and in quality of life, but the profits reaped by the processed foods industry are so overwhelmingly large and reliable that, to hear this doc tell it, they sweep away any reluctance the companies and their spokespeople might have about destroying human health via the food supply.

The film underscores how the psychological toll is a huge part of the harm. "Fed Up" follows the efforts of several obese teens as they attempt to lose weight and improve their physical condition, as well as their social standing. Being fat has made them scapegoats and objects of scorn; their parents suffer on their behalf, but are oftentimes just as plus-sized, and uninformed about how to meet their family's dietary needs. That's not so surprising, given how deeply sugar and corn-derived sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup) have penetrated the food supply. 'Fed Up" investigates how vested interests not only squelch efforts to get the word out about healthier eating strategies, but go so far as to arrange (as with the case of a U.N. report) for their own marketplace-friendly "facts" to be incorporated into the narrative that consumers buy into.

The question of how information is deleted and distorted is important, because a central point of the film's narrative is the schizoid nature of the messaging with which we're bombarded: A moral sense that to be fat is the result of personal failings co-exists with endless advertisements and everyday exhortations to consume processed sweets and starches. (Those snack displays at your local office supply store? What are they doing there? Think about it.)

As with so many other things in life in which high-handed, simplistic "morality" plays a role, science provides a quite different, and considerably more complex, account. In this case, it's a matter not of willpower or deliberate choices, but of biochemistry: Sugar is addictive, and those who consume sweets (and foods that turn into sugar as soon as they enter the body) are junk food's literal junkies. This is a matter of how the digestive system works: Too much sugar and too little fiber mean that many processed foods are converted directly into fat by the liver rather than being metabolized for energy. Even artificial sweeteners can make you fat, disrupting the body's biochemistry and short-circuiting the signals that ordinarily tell people when they've eaten enough.

The result, according to experts who offer their testimony to a backdrop of cleverly designed images, is that our diets don't satiate us and give us energy; rather, they make us sluggish and hungry. What follows is a vicious circle that packs pounds onto the human frame, smothers the internal organs in excess fat, and leads to ever-spiking rates of disease conditions such as strokes, heart attacks, and -- most prevalent in the young -- diabetes. But a negligent (sometimes bullied and sometimes even complicit) government won't take much in the way of real action, and if it does (Michelle Obama is cited here), its messaging is liable to be hijacked. As long as the public is persuaded that bad foods are good, food-like edible substances are actually food, weight gain and loss are mere matters of "calories in/calories out," and the catastrophic impact on human health is a result of nothing other than insufficient personal responsibility, the situation continues... and continually deteriorates. The film paints a picture in which fast foods comprise school lunches, purveyors of junk inculcate children from birth, "healthy" foods like sports drinks and meal bars are just more junk with a different marketing ploy, and millions of dollars roll into corporate coffers while millions of people pay the price.

Though Couric's presence (and her Mark Monroe and Stephanie Soechtig-scripted references to a news story on which she reported) give this documentary the imprimatur of news, it's really not; this material has made appearances in the press before now, though it is valuable to have it all in one place. Nor is this film objective in the style of traditional news reporting (meaning, pre-Fox and MSNBC); even as "Fed Up" points fingers at the ideological component of the conditions driving the obesity epidemic (government attempts to rein in big food end up being labeled anti-liberty "nanny state" overreach), there's more than a little ideological slant here along with plenty of righteous outrage.

Maybe there should be. But it's unlikely that this film will make much difference either way; documentaries don't typically play to the mainstream America or influence policymakers. Those who bother to see "Fed Up" will probably already be believers in its cause (by dint of being already educated enough on the issue to care), while those who most need to see it -- like the teens the film profiles -- are hardly the demographic who head to the art house in droves to take in documentaries instead of super-hero flicks and car-chase movies at the Cineplex.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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