Fed Up is not the first work to take aim at the American food industry. There was 2004’s Supersize Me, in which creator Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for 30 days (and suffered greatly as a consequence). There was 2010’s Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, which explored juice cleanses, and 2011’s Forks Over Knives, which advocated a low-fat, plant-based diet; not to mention countless books about healthy eating by Michael Pollan and others. But Fed Up, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and opens at E Street Cinema on Friday, explores the obesity epidemic by refuting the prevailing theory that weight is simply just about calories in versus calories out.
The film is narrated by Katie Couric, whom executive producer Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth) credits with the initial idea. “She’s been covering diet and exercise for her whole career, and she kept wondering, why is everybody getting so sick and fat?” David says. Director Stephanie Soechtig appeared on Couric’s show to talk about her movie Tapped, about the bottled-water industry, and mentioned the idea of a documentary to Couric, who reached out to David; the three then began to dive into the obesity issue. They started by searching for families with overweight children to follow, including 212-pound, 12-year old Maggie, who swims several times a week, and 14-year-old Joe, who undergoes bariatric surgery; the children record their weight-loss attempts through often emotional video diaries that make up the most heartrending portions of the movie.
The film sets out to prove that “big food” companies are on par with the cigarette industry in terms of misleading and harmful claims, covering multiple decades and topics, from senator George McGovern’s 1977 report advocating new nutritional guidelines for Americans (which was subsequently revised after strong protests from the beef, sugar, dairy, and egg industries) to the pervasiveness of junk-food advertising aimed at children (a particularly effective segment juxtaposes a clip of an old Flintstones episode sponsored by a cigarette company with a current commercial for Fruity Pebbles starring the same characters) to the shockingly unhealthy lunches served in schools across the country. It’s slickly produced, with crisply illustrated statistics and video footage from past and present breaking up the talking-head segments. (Former president Bill Clinton is among those talking heads, musing about whether his administration could have done more to promote healthy eating and bemoaning the fact that what used to be called “adult-onset diabetes” is now referred to as Type 2.) And while the documentary could delve more into the connection between lower-income and minority families and obesity—it’s mentioned but not explored that food and drink companies heavily target minorities—the statistics presented are effectively frightening.
“People were shocked at the information,” says Soechtig. “My favorite thing to hear is when they say, ‘I thought I knew the whole story, I thought I knew everything there was to know about food, and I learned so much.’” (This writer’s main takeaway: Sugar is poison, and it’s hidden in even seemingly healthy food.)
David agrees: “I didn’t know George McGovern had hearings on this very topic 30 years ago—that the government knew 30 years ago the American diet was going off the rails then,” she says. “We want to level the playing field for people so that a mom has a shot at raising a healthy child.” Both Soechtig and David say their goal is to get the film’s message out to as many people as possible; the film company, Radius-TWC, is even releasing a version of the movie dubbed in Spanish—a first for the company.
The movie presents plenty of disturbing statistics, but also makes a point of offering actionable solutions. No doubt it will give even the healthiest eater something to chew on.
Fed Up is playing at E Street Cinema starting Friday, May 9. Visit the theater’s website for tickets and showtimes.