Within the first five minutes of Fed Up, a documentary about obesity from a producer of An Inconvenient Truth, you want to tell narrator Katie Couric: “Stop saying ‘epidemic’ already!” Yet there are still nearly 90 minutes left. Apparently that’s how long it takes to drill into your head some groundbreaking news: You should eat your vegetables instead of fast food.
Director and co-writer Stephanie Soechtig doesn’t have a light touch with this “It’s your fault…or is it?” discussion. Immediately before the title flashes, a frightened-looking schoolgirl drops a sandwich in slow motion as Couric intones, “What if our whole approach to this epidemic”—ugh—“has been dead wrong?”
She’s talking about the long-held belief that maintaining a healthy weight is a simple matter of eating right and exercising enough to burn the calories you take in. Over the past 30-odd years, however, that golden rule has become increasingly ineffective, especially for children. And the reason is the proliferation of both fast and processed foods—as well as, of course, manufacturers’ bottom lines. “Food companies are interested in selling more food,” a New York University nutrition professor says, unnecessarily.
The culprit is sugar, regardless of whether it’s pure sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or even artificial sweeteners. It’s allegedly in 80 percent of our country’s food products and, according to lab mice and their lab-coated overlords, is more addictive than cocaine. This, admittedly, is the topic on which Fed Up becomes more educational and less “no shit.” Particularly if you hadn’t noticed that product labels give estimated percentages of one’s recommended daily allowance of nutrients like protein and sodium, but sugar gets a big blank.
The situation and the unrelenting defensiveness of company shills seen here is rather maddening. (You know they’re in the wrong if each of them thinks like former McDonald’s executive Shelley Rosen, who says that “Ronald McDonald informs and inspires through magic and fun.” Um, no, Shelley—Ronald McDonald gives kids nightmares.) But the topic is more appropriate for a Dateline segment than a feature-length film. You’ll tune out fast.
Worse than the doc’s length, though, is its blatant manipulation. Fed Up has the usual documentary staples: brightly colored graphics, a soundtrack that goes from ominous to happy to cautiously optimistic. Naturally, there are also talking heads. A few of these are morbidly obese children. You do feel sorry for them, considering that a majority of schools serve junk food for lunch, there’s a bombardment of advertising for all things processed, and some have parents that just give up on slimming the family down. But then the tearful testimonials start. The children opine on how challenging it can be to lose weight in lingo that few soda-chugging teens would use. The coaching is as obvious as it is on the fitness-promoting reality shows that Couric condemns. How convenient.