Friday, December 12, 2014

Fed Up: It's Time to Get Real About Our Food

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

For the first time in the history of the world, more people are dying from obesity than from starvation. That's one of the earlier lines in the movie "Fed Up," which my food blogger brother wrote about in October.

Documentary-lover that I am, and with my interest in nutrition and health, I borrowed his copy of the movie and watched it myself. I highly recommend the film, especially for Americans who have never thought about their food before. It's a great, simple introduction to many of the complex problems surrounding the average American's health and diet today.

Here's the trailer:

Fed Up with Childhood Obesity and Diabetes

The movie focused on the problem that more children today than ever before in history are becoming diabetic. This is also the first generation expected to have shorter lives than their parents. Why? It's because of what children are eating.

The movie follows the stories of a few severely obese children and their families, observing how each is trying to fight the problem. One is a 12-year-old girl who weighs 212 pounds. Another is a 400 pound 9th grade boy from Texas. It was hard to watch at times, only because most of their families were going about helping their children lose weight in the completely wrong way, hence no results.

For example, the 12-year-old swims four days a week and walks her dog on the weekend, says she's "eating healthy," but still no change in weight. Her doctor told her to join Weight Watchers, but when they looked into the program, they found out she's not old enough. So they stopped going to the doctor. Instead, the parents check fat content on boxes, always sure to buy low-fat products, and fortified cereals with whole grains in them. At school she eats the school lunch, but that's often a cheeseburger and fries. (More on public school lunches in a bit.)

As the rest of the movie explains, this is the wrong way to lose weight and have your health. But I suppose this was part of the point—that directions from our doctors and physicians, coupled with what items in the grocery store are mislabeled to make you think, aren't clear. Society blames people for not exercising enough, they blame the obese person's lack of will power. But that's not the problem. So what's to blame? This film says that sugar is the main culprit, and I believe it.

Fed Up with Sugar and the Processed Food Industry

In order to look at the present day sugar and processed food problems, we need to first go back to 1977. The McGovern Report from that year was the first time the U.S. government sat down to write dietary guidelines for the country. But the egg, sugar, dairy and beef industries didn't like the suggestions in the report, as it would have hurt business (surprise, surprise). So under industry pressure, the recommendations in the report were changed. It encouraged Americans to buy more lean products instead of less processed and sugary products. So that's what prompted the '80s to boom with "low-fat" products.

How does low fat lead to sugar? Well, as the film explains, if you remove the fat, the food tastes worse. So to make it taste better they add sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. If you take a look at all of the products sold in grocery stores today, 80% have added sugar in them. In fact, from 1977 to 2000, Americans have completely doubled their daily sugar intake. D-o-u-b-l-e-d. And we wonder why there are so many health problems today...

Well, how do we know that all of this excess sugar is bad? What are the dietary guidelines about sugar? How can so much be in all of this food if it's bad for us? In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO, division of the United Nations) put together a document called TRS 916. Original name, I know. The TRS 916 included the recommendation to restrict sugar intake to 10% of your total calories. This is nearly a repeat of the McGovern report, because once again, the food industries didn't like the health recommendation.

So because of all their pushback, Tommy Thompson went to Geneva himself and actually told the WHO that if they were to publish the document, the USA would withhold the 406 million dollars they'd promised the organization. Wowzer. So guess what happened? The WHO completely removed the sugar recommendation from the report. Surprisingly (or not?) the USA now recommends that 25% of your daily calories should come from sugar.

Yeah, it got bumped from 10% to 25% in our country: two and a half times the original WHO recommendation! How did all of this sugar creep into our diet? Easy, check the nutritional label of anything. Find the sugar line and look at the grams. Now look at the Daily Value %. Oh wait, there isn't one! Yes, food companies are somehow magically exempt from reporting the daily value percent for sugar. On many products, the sugar percentage would be super high, often over 100%—and that's with the daily recommended value that's already 2.5 times the World Health Organization recommendation!

The bottom line is that sugar is addictive, it's cheap, so the food companies are thriving off of it, while our health is suffering incredibly. Food companies are here to make money, not to make us healthy. The food industry does not care about your health, no matter what their boxes, labels, and advertisements may try to trick you into thinking.

Fed Up with Lies from the Processed Food Industry

As I've learned earlier this year from reading several books (especially "Whole") and doing some nutrition research, a calorie of x is not the same as a calorie of y. "Fed Up" compares 160 calories of almonds to 160 calories of soda as an example. The almonds have fiber naturally built in (nature knows what it's doing, folks), meaning that it's not absorbed immediately by the body, so blood sugar rises lower for longer. Soda, on the other hand, is absorbed directly through the portal system to the liver. This causes the liver to have a sugar rush, so the organ immediately turns it into fat. A calorie is not a calorie, yet all of the soda companies and processed food companies will tell you the opposite. They want you to focus on calories, calories, calories—because they can turn those up or down as they wish.

The documentary also briefly touches on the political muck surrounding fast food and processed food companies. Many, like Coca Cola and Pepsi for example, fund university research and donate to professional societies. This allows them to get studies showing the results they want—which is neither science nor the truth. These companies have teamed up with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, to keep her from attacking their industries. The First Lady's original campaign was set to tackle both diet and exercise, but quickly became solely focused on exercise when the big companies heard the message she was going to spread. So companies like Kraft, Coca Cola, Hersheys, Kellogs, etc. signed an agreement with her to remove 1.5 trillion calories out of the market place in 2015. This only comes out to a bite a day for the average child, but that's besides the point. See what their focus is again? Calories. They're taking out a few calories, but these new products have the same amount of sugar.

Fed Up with Processed Food Ads Targeting Children

"Fed Up" actually compares processed food and fast food companies to tobacco companies 30 years ago in the way that they target children in ads.

They use cartoons, have toys in kids meals, fun play areas in the restaurant, etc. But kids have never seen a commercial for fruits and vegetables, and this completely changes their whole conception of food—which I can attest to, as I was born in 1989. All people born in the '80s and on have been surrounded by these processed food and fast food advertisements their entire lives. Candy bars in check-out aisles of every type of store, fast food in school lunches. I didn't know what real food was until I left the country for the first time my junior year of college and my eyes were opened.

Fed Up with U.S. Public School Lunches

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got put in charge of the country's dietary regulations after the McGovern report, which definitely shouldn't be the case. (Conflict of interest, anyone?) Even though school lunch policy was recently "improved," did you know that both pizza and french fries count as a vegetable under our country's policy? You heard me: According to the U.S. government, pizza and french fries are vegetables.

Want to know how the pizza remained in that definition? Schwan, a frozen food company from Minnesota, makes 70% of its pizza sales to public schools. So if the government would have declared the truth, that pizza is not a vegetable, pizza sales would have dropped.

Another case of special interests being put ahead of public health. So many fast food restaurants operate in schools. If school cafeterias prepared food in the school, as they did years ago, that would fix so much of this health epidemic. Movie narrator Katie Couric asks near the film's end: What if all sodas carried a warning label, like cigarettes do now? What if fast food and processed food advertisements were removed from TV and taken out of public spaces? What if school lunches were cooked at school, removing all fast and processed foods from the building? What a wonderful world it would be!

The "Fed Up" Challenge: Sugar Free for 10 Days

The makers of the movie have created the "Fed Up" challenge, which is fantastic because people need a concrete action in order to change. People may agree with everything in the film, but unless you have a specific action to put in place, old habits will remain. So the challenge is to go sugar free for ten days.

Other ways to get involved and keep the conversation flowing would definitely be to watch the film if you haven't yet seen it—better yet watch it with someone (friends, family). Be aware of that sugar line on food labels, check for sugar in the ingredients list, and avoid "low-fat"/"reduced fat" foods. Better yet, stick to the outer rim of the grocery store (produce, fresh foods) and purchase more foods that don't come with a nutrition label.

And after you've seen the film, I'd love to hear from you—are you fed up?
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