Stephanie Soechtig is here to challenge your most basic beliefs about nutrition and health. And if enough people get the message, then her documentary Fed Up (opening Friday [May 9]) could be a game-changer.
“I remember at the very beginning of the film telling people, ‘You know you can’t exercise your way out of this?’” says Soechtig, in a call to the Straight from New York. “And you’re looked at as a heretic, and you kind of seem like an idiot. People think, ‘Of course you can.’ It’s so fascinating how these things become so ingrained. Even knowing what I know today, I still find myself instinctually reaching for the lower fat item when it’s presented to me. It’s hard to imagine that it’s not the better option.”
Made over four years, Fed Up presents us with a heartbreaking cross-section of American teens fighting obesity and chronic metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, and a maddening account of the grim decline in food quality over the last 30 years. Sugar is the biggest culprit, hidden behind a dizzying array of names and inadequately—no, deceptively labeled on the package. At one point in Fed Up, speaking about the various and powerful big food lobbies that have put profits before public health—especially where children are concerned— Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they live with themselves.”
“I don’t think that these are bad people,” reasons Soechtig. “I think they have a job and their job is to sell as much product as possible. I think if they could make a living selling broccoli and carrots, they would do that too. But obviously I think some of the ways they try to do it are egregious. Marketing to kids; making food highly addictive; I think all those things should be illegal. But I think a little bit of the responsibility in that arena falls on us as citizens because we vote every day when we buy something, and if we stopped buying their products, they would shift.”
In a nutshell, Fed Up makes the case that skyrocketing obesity rates in the U.S. are attributable to bad information as much as bad food. The calories delivered in a raw almond are metabolized in a distinctly different way than those provided by a soft drink. Or, for that matter, fruit juice, yogurt, ketchup, ranch dressing, cereal, low-fat granola bars, so-called health drinks… “All the things you don’t know that have sugar in them,” in Soechtig’s words. The upshot is that our conventional wisdom regarding diet and exercise is wrong, and even a slim build doesn’t guarantee, as the film points out, that we’re not “fat on the inside.”
The simple answer is to eat real food. The challenge is to change minds already battered into submission by marketing. It isn’t a perfect analogy, but sugar, as one onscreen expert puts it, “is the cigarettes of the 21st century.” And we know what happened with that industry.
“There is safe threshold for sugar,” Soechtig offers. “Six to nine teaspoons is okay. This isn’t about what you’re putting in your coffee in the morning; this isn’t about having a bowl of ice cream a couple times a week. It’s about the hidden sugars that are being put in to addict us. Do I think it’ll happen? I hope it’ll happen. I hope we’ll see that it’s just common sense, that we shouldn’t be marketing these things to kids on television. It’s not a big thing to ask. It’s common sense that schools should be a safe zone. A kid shouldn’t have to reach over candy bars and slushies to pay for his lunch.”