Obesity is often described as a personal problem: a lack of exercise and self-control. But the film, Fed Up, argues that weight gain is also the natural result of lax public policy and an industry that capitalizes on our biologically programmed desire for sugar, salt and fat.
"We want people to get literally fed up with the system that has allowed the food industry to target kids in what we think is a really nefarious way, but we also want to arm people with the facts so they can take better control," Couric said about the film, which debuts Friday for a limited run in theaters nationwide. "It's challenging to be personally responsible when you don't know the truth, or when you're misled."
Nutrition activists lauded the goals of the film, while industry experts said it oversimplifies a complex problem and unnecessarily vilifies an industry that would like to be part of the solution.
"There's a whole orchard's worth of cherry-picking in their claims and statistics," said Matt Raymond, senior director of communications for the International Food Information Council, an independent, non-profit education foundation.
Industry members said the film ignored the positive steps the food industry has taken to reduce obesity, such as removing full-calorie sodas from schools, putting nutrition facts on the front of food packages, and cutting more than 6.4 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace since 2007.
"Rather than identifying successful policies or ongoing efforts to find real and practical solutions to obesity, (the film) adopts a short-sighted, confrontational and misleading approach," according to a statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group.
Couric said she set out to produce a film that would get to the bottom of the obesity epidemic.
"I had covered obesity and what was happening in the American diet for 30 years and I realized nobody really understood the root causes," Couric said.
Those causes, according to the film, include food policy that subsidizes cheap corn syrup and unhealthy school lunches, misleading corporate marketing, and lack of public awareness.
Nevin Cohen, a food policy expert and professor at The New School in New York City, said poverty is also a major factor in obesity. All parents want to feed their children well, but when it's a choice between eating something cheap or nothing at all, health concerns become a lower priority, he said.
"In my opinion, it's criminal to blame parents for feeding their kids unhealthy food when we organize society to make it so difficult" for them to feed them well, said Cohen, who is currently writing a book about the role urban gardening can play in healthy eating.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler said a film like Fed Up can help raise public awareness about the dangers of having high-fat, sugar-laden foods available everywhere at all times of day. Social acceptance needs to change in the same way that attitudes toward smoking have changed, he said. But it will be much harder to change attitudes about food, because people can't give it up entirely.
Kessler, who served under both presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, argues in his 2009 book The End of Overeating that people are biologically programmed to crave sugar, salt and fat. Instead of satisfying our desire, eating processed foods stimulates our brain to make us want more, and food companies design products to maximize those cravings, he said. "There are reasons why we keep eating," even if we want to stop, he said.
"We're not going to be able to change the way our brain responds to food," he said, "so we're going to have to change our environment or our social norms."
Some solutions are easy and concrete, Couric said: "Drink water, Eat real food. Don't bring your kids brownies for halftime at the soccer game."
"We have a lot of work to do, but the solutions are there," added co-producer Laurie David, who also produced the award-winning climate change film An Inconvenient Truth. "How often do you have a complex problem where the solutions are doable and tangible? I think that's pretty exciting."
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