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A Review of "Fed Up" (2014)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Fed Up makes some intriguing points and effectively communicates a few important ideas, but it undercuts these valuable messages with some polarizing snark and some unfair tactics or outright misinformation.  I'd love to see somebody take the medical / research aspects of this documentary and turn it into something less charged so the message could reach a broader audience.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The General Summary

Fed Up is a documentary first about the rise of obesity, second about the link between excessive sugar intake and obesity, and third about food corporations and the sleazy tactics by which they get away with pushing high-sugar foods without repercussions or regulation by the US government.

I can't speak to the facts because a) I'm not knowledgeable enough on the topic, and b) the movie doesn't really have a list of cited sources (at least not in the film itself, and I'm too lazy to go digging it up now) that can be reviewed.

A few minutes of Googling led me to this site, which lists a number of inaccuracies and corrections.  I trust Harriet Hall as a source of good information, so I'm content to accept her review - which paints an unflattering picture of Fed Up's conclusions.

The Stuff I Didn't Like

There's mainly two problems with this.

The first is that it's just plain dishonest at times. (See above.)  Documentaries of late really fall into one of three categories - a best-effort attempt at objective retelling of some information (facts), outrageous bullshit that was cut together in somebody's basement (virtually everything on the History channel), and talk pieces (opinions).  The first category are actual documentaries, and everything else is part of this nebulous new genre that we've all apparently decided to just start calling "documentaries."

Fed Up is pretty obviously not trying to be objective - the title, tagline, and poster make that perfectly clear - so part of me just wants to give it a pass and try to evaluate it from its effectiveness at wringing an emotional reaction out of me.  But even by those standards, I can't.  It's just not fair to make a documentary that accuses other groups of distorting the truth and then to turn around and play similar tricks on the audience.

For example: there's a sequence early on where the head of a research group funded by Coca-Cola was asked to defend his claim that there was not a credible link between sugar intake and obesity.  (Or something to that effect.)  The interviewer asks the guy a question, then cuts him off before he can answer with another question, then cuts him off again, and then caps it off by asking him to design a new experiment that would provide satisfactory data to prove the interviewer's point.  The interviewee stammers for a bit and is rendered awkwardly silent, and then we never see him again.

It's a punchy scene, sure, but i's grossly exaggerated and doesn't actually address the question.  (Also, are you seriously expecting a dude to design a proper experiment on the spot?  Do you realize that experimental design is incredibly difficult and is actually pretty much the whole basis of getting a doctorate?  Getting angry is a lot easier than doing science.)

While FU makes a big point about the conflict of interest - which is a good point - it doesn't actually present enough scientific data to contradict those findings.  We get some data, sure, but it's usually in the form of isolated studies or irate talking heads telling me that the current data is bad.  It's not enough.  I need more than people's frustrations and some Mickey Mouse editing tricks to consider my opinion "informed."

The second problem is that the documentary as a whole is just too angry.  It vilifies people too much and that detracts from the core message.  If the takeaway is supposed to be, "You need to substantially reduce your sugar intake to live a healthier lifestyle," then let's make that the focus.  Let's follow that thread and show how to make that work.

Instead, it feels like the takeaway message is simply, "Big corporations are bad."  Which I kind of agree with, but it's still not the point you started out making.  Eyes on the prize, FU.

The Stuff I Liked

I want to end on this note because I think there is actually still some value in Fed Up, even if its message is cloudy.

The film's greatest achievement is that it does induce a strong - maybe violently strong - reaction to how crappy the average American diet really is.  Bottom line: we eat too damn much bad food.  Across the board.  We don't eat nearly enough vegetables and home-cooked meals and we've allowed ourselves to settle into complacency with a barrage of sugars, oils, and processed goodies.  It's pretty hard to argue against that point, and the film really makes it well.

Regardless of whether there's a link between sugar and obesity - as I understand it, there haven't been enough experiments on this to make a strong conclusion right now - we can pretty much all agree that we'd be better off if we dropped off our junk food intake.  Sometimes all you need is something incendiary to call you to action, and in that sense, Fed Up might be perfect for you.  The first half of it, anyway.

But the other thing Fed Up did that I appreciated was that it gave some obese kids a chance to speak their minds and explain their current challenges.

Uncomfortable honesty time: I'm fat.  I've pretty much always been fat.  Right now I'm around 280 - though, to be vain for a minute, I think I wear the weight well and don't really look like 280.  Even so, I'm fat.  At my highest, I was almost 300 pounds.  There was a brief period in my mid-twenties when I was slightly less fat - I worked out for 40 minutes every day on an elliptical trainer and dropped down to around 240 for about a year and a half.  But even then, I was obese by the BMI calculation.

My current diet is not great.  I make a point to eat a good amount of vegetables and I try my hardest not to rely on processed foods, but it's tough.  I also have a high stress job that's really far away from home, so on a typical weekday I spend about two and a half hours driving (sedentary) and another eight and a half to nine hours at my desk (sedentary).  Without a lot of free time, it's easy to just throw a frozen pizza in the oven once or twice a week, or just heat up some french fries and call it a night.

You know, I think I wrote about this before.  How I had to choose between being a fat writer or being a slightly less fat aspiring writer.

My point is, it's really tough to not be fat if your body was built to be fat.  There's a lot of factors that I can control, sure - but there's a lot of factors I really can't.  The deck is stacked against me.  The world doesn't want to make it easy for me to spend the 1-2 hours a day I'd need to dedicate toward working out and preparing freshly-cooked, nutritious meals.

It's not a hopeless situation, but it's nowhere close to as simple as skinny people make it out to be.  Any time I hear some thin bastard condescendingly tell me - or anyone - to "eat less and work out more," I want to slap them and say, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK I'VE BEEN TRYING TO DO?!"

And this is where I appreciated Fed Up the most, because instead of filming some obese kids and judging them, it gives them a chance to say, "You know what, guys?  I've been trying.  Or at least, I feel like I've been trying."  The problem isn't a lack of will, it's a lack of education and proper resources.

If we're going to treat obesity as an epidemic or a "sickness," then we shouldn't be shaming anybody for being obese.  We should be working together as a team to solve it.  We should treat it like we would somebody going through rehab.  You know you're having an obese person over for dinner?  Don't order out.  Make a nice salad and some grilled chicken instead.  You wouldn't invite an alcoholic over for a beer, would you?

It's not that we need to take responsibility for other people being fat, but we currently treat obesity the same way we do most of our societal problems: we rally behind a bullcrap cry of "personal responsibility" while ignoring the thousands of confounding factors that make life really difficult.  The first step to solving a problem is empathy, and Fed Up at least makes that effort.  For that, even if nothing else, it deserves praise.

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