'Fed Up' documentary challenges students to fight obesity

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 6:20 p.m. MST

Students from Ecker Hill Middle School participate in a Q-and-A session for the documentary film "Fed Up," in Park City, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. The film deals with America's eating habits.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Maggie Valentine is 12 years old and weighs 212 pounds.

"My doctor has said I'm a statistic," she says in the Sundance documentary "Fed Up." "I don't really know what it means. I think it has something to do with my weight."

In the film, Maggie talks about the frustrations of trying to stay healthy through diet and exercise. She is one of many overweight teenagers profiled in "Fed Up," which examines the obesity epidemic in the United States.

The film points a critical finger at lawmakers, schools and the food industry for cultivating a culture of unhealthy eating habits and suggests that sugary foods — and particularly soda — are the cigarettes of the 21st century.

"Just like cigarettes literally cause lung cancer, certain foods literally make you fat," author Gary Taubes says in the film. "If you want to cure obesity, you have to demonize some food industries."

On Tuesday, a full-house crowd of seventh-graders — roughly the same age as Maggie — from Ecker Hill Middle School in Park City visited the Redstone Theater for a special screening of the film.

"Fed Up" was one of 12 of this year's festival films selected for the High School Screening Program, which invites student groups from the Wasatch Front to attend a Sundance screening free of charge.

Last year, roughly 4,800 students from 68 Utah schools participated in the screening program, said Kara Cody, Sundance's manager of Utah community and student programs. Cody said the goal of the program is to engage students in stories from around the globe and introduce them to the art of independent film.

"We program films that are, of course, content-appropriate for a student audience," she said. "We also try to use films that are of some interest to students as well."

"Fed Up" drew applause from the Ecker Hill students Tuesday. When asked by "Fed Up" editor Brian Lazarte who would "think twice" about drinking soda every day, about half of the students raised their hands.

Several students also posed questions of their own to Lazarte and Eve Marson, one of the film's producers, during a discussion that followed the screening.

Ecker Hill student Valentin Flores asked what is a good and quick way to check if the food you buy is healthy.

Lazarte reiterated that a person should check a food's sugar content, which is often added to make up for lost taste in low-fat and low-calorie alternatives. He also emphasized the need to eat "real" foods and fresh produce as opposed to processed goods.

"Look at the ingredients on the back," Lazarte said. "If there’s a bunch of names that you cannot pronounce, chances are that’s not real food. Actually, I can guarantee that’s not real food."

Maya Christensen, another Ecker Hill student, said the movie made her reconsider her attitude toward junk food and sugar.

"I was surprised how sugar can be that addictive and how it's in, like, every food you eat," she said. "It definitely changes the way I think about stuff and how I'll look at food and how I'll decide what to eat."

The bulk of "Fed Up" examines America's dietary habits, and many of the interviews in the film suggest that anti-obesity efforts have unproductively focused on exercise and fitness while largely giving a pass to the food industry.

Data are shown on the increased number of fitness club memberships over the past few decades, a trend that largely mirrors the growth of America's waistlines.

Obese and overweight individuals are often criticized for laziness or a lack of willpower to exercise, Taubes argues, and encouraged to maintain an "energy balance" that focuses on calorie intake and calorie output. But that focus on energy balance, he says, is "nonsense."

The problem, Taubes explains, is that a calorie burned while jogging is equal to a calorie burned while sleeping. But a calorie ingested from a food high in fiber and other beneficial substances is absorbed by the body in different ways from the calories in processed food and sugary sodas.

The film also looks at how sugar consumption has increased in the past 30 years, partly due to a growing market of diet and low-calorie foods that boast a lower caloric content while maintaining — or even increasing — the amount of sugar or sugar-like substances.

"Sugar is poison," Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, is quoted as saying in the film.

Efforts to regulate the food industry are frequently met with pushback from lobbying groups and criticisms of nanny state governance, the film argues. But in one scene, pediatrician Harvey Kapp suggests that if the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other dietary illnesses were the result of meddling from a foreign nation, lawmakers would leap to counter the attack.

"We’d probably go to war," Kapp says. "We would defend our families, so why do we accept this from our country?"

Following up on the comparison to cigarettes, the film argues that the solutions lie in the lessons learned from the government's protracted battle with Big Tobacco. "Fed Up" rhetorically asks what effect there could be if warning labels were required on soda bottles, if fast food were banned from schools, and if media advertising were required to balance a commercial for candy bars with a plug for brocoli.

"We've got to change the diet of America," former President Bill Clinton says in the film. "We've got to change the way we produce and consume food."

Kim Yutani, a programmer for Sundance, described the film as a "must-include" and said there was essentially a unanimous agreement on its selection. She said the film's power is its potential to change a viewer's behavior and added that it prompted her to alter her eating habits.

"It was one of the most powerful documentaries we saw all season," Yutani said. "I think anybody who watches it will have a hard time not being affected by it."

Cody said "Fed Up" was a natural fit for the student screening program, which also includes documentaries on the Vietnam War and Internet addiction, as well as a narrative feature from Spain.

"It's just nice to show students there are options out there other than the big Hollywood blockbuster, that there are different ways of telling stories," she said.

Fielding a question on why the government has been slow to react to the obesity crisis, Lazarte told the Ecker Hill students that their voice as the youths of the United States has even more power than the experts quoted in the film.

"If you guys start speaking up and tell your schools, your teachers, your principal that ‘we don’t want it,’ that’s the first step," he said. "Now that you’re armed with the information you have from the film, there’s so much more you can do with that."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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