Fed Up: Sundance Review

"Fed Up"
Highly relevant film diminishes its central message with distracting details.

Newscaster Katie Couric narrates a doc about the national “epidemic” of childhood obesity.

The widespread obesity in the U.S., along with attendant economic, health care and social impacts, is by now a well-documented trend. Among the more alarming aspects of this situation is the rapidly increasing number of overweight children, some of whom are developing diseases and disorders typically found only in adults. Featuring newscaster Katie Couric as narrator and executive producer, Fed Up examines the issue of childhood obesity in extensive detail, offering perspectives from medical, research and advocacy sources to demonstrate the scope of a public health crisis that impacts issues as disparate as individual longevity and national security, but most crucially lets affected kids speak for themselves. Broadcast outlets will line up to program this attractively packaged item, which also has offshore potential for digital distribution.

After years of covering reports about childhood obesity, Couric recognized that an extensive body of seemingly isolated statistics was revealing a nationwide problem that threatened kids’ health, and even their lives. Further investigation revealed a web of interconnected issues involving food manufacturers, government policies and the lifestyle choices of millions of Americans. Going directly to the most affected population, the filmmakers team up with several young people struggling with weight problems, including a 250-pound, 15-year-old boy and a 212-pound, 12-year-old girl, who says her doctors call her a walking statistic. As these kids make sometimes radical lifestyle and dietary changes over two years of shooting, often seeing only marginal results, their dilemmas reveal the direct impacts of an industry that’s at the center of the nation’s weight-gain problem. 

In an ongoing campaign to sell a wider variety of products at lower prices, the American food-manufacturing industry began a post-War transition to replace naturally derived food products with artificial ingredients that were cheaper and easier to manipulate. The filmmakers contend that leading manufacturers eventually determined some fundamental facts of nutritional science -- processed foods could be tweaked to increase consumers’ ongoing reliance on specific types of products. Sugar, in its many forms, has become the principle culprit in this process, added to an astounding array of foods. In turn, federal agencies have facilitated the widespread infiltration of sugary ingredients into the American diet by obfuscating the role of these sweeteners in food products, while providing agricultural subsidies to the industries that manufacture them.

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The filmmakers conclude that in the past three decades, Americans have doubled their intake of sugar, which acts as a liver toxin at elevated levels, and that the addition of sugary products to processed foods is the principal cause of increasing obesity. Excessive dietary sugar can create addictive responses, their sources assert. For decades, the most widely accepted weight-loss regimen has been some variation of the maxim “eat less, exercise more” and the documentary shows the film’s youngest interview subjects trying to adhere to that guidance by improving their dietary and exercise habits. As these kids’ experiences reveal, however, they’re taking on an impossible task, since their workout regimens can’t possibly keep up with their caloric intake.

As a result of their research, the filmmakers assert that the U.S. government has facilitated the nation’s largest processed food manufacturers and industry associations with misleading the public regarding the health effects of diets based on federally recommended guidelines and that the increase in obesity among affected kids will curtail their lifespans. In its wide-ranging analysis, the film also considers the role of government regulations, marketing and food science as contributing factors.

Casting such a broad net over a particularly complex and contentious issue necessitates a great many sources with extensive medical, scientific and policy expertise. A good couple dozen MDs, PhDs, journalists and experts are profiled, including President Bill Clinton reflecting on whether his administrations could have done more to address the public health issue. The series of profiles on children dealing with the social stigma and physical limitations of obesity are clearly the most affecting content, augmented by short home videos the kids shoot with their laptops documenting their daily struggles with food choices. Segments on Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to educate kids about healthy diets and exercise, and the federally subsidized school lunch program, are less effective, absorbing time that could be better utilized focusing on nutritional science and exercise physiology to elucidate the range of factors affecting weight gain and loss.

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Director Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped), along with co-writer Mark Monroe, effectively marshals a wide-ranging selection of facts and interviews to make the case for changing the way we view and consume food. Cogent computer graphics support the film’s key points demonstrating the vagaries of human biology and the kids’ individual stories lend emotional heft.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, US Documentary Competition

Production company: Atlas Films

Director: Stephanie Soechtig

Screenwriters: Mark Monroe, Stephanie Soechtig

Producers: Eve Marson, Sarah Olson, Stephanie Soechtig

Executive Producers: Katie Couric, Laurie David, Heather Reisman, Regina K. Scully, Michelle Walrath, Michael Walrath

Director of photography: Scott Sinkler

Music: Michael Brook

Editors: Brian Lazarte, Tina Nguyen, Dan Swietlik

No rating, 92 minutes