Friday, May 09, 2014

"Fed Up" explains the biological basis for the epidemic of teen obesity, points to food companies, challenges consumers

There’s a red fox who sometimes comes into the yard.  He even has gotten to recognize me.  It’s a nice relationship.  He can take care of himself better than I could.  If I fed him, he’d probably develop Type 2 diabetes.  Living on what he can catch in the wild, he stays perfectly healthy.

That may be the biological background for the new documentary “Fed Up”, directed by Stephanie Soechtig,, and narrated (and largely produced) by Katie Couric.  America is facing a growing pandemic of obesity in kids, teenager and young adults, largely because of the way food companies have sold processed foods (often based on corn syrup) to the American public, and the way they have lobbied politicians to look the other way, despite their media hype.  The film presents the food companies as the moral equivalent of tobacco companies.

The film presents its version of the biology of obesity.  Not all ingested calories are equal.  When a calorie is ingested with fiber (or some kinds of fat), it is absorbed slowly.  When it comes in fructose molecules or simple carbohydrates, the liver has to metabolize it immediately.  So it stores it as fat and demands insulin.  When this is repeated for years, it sets up Type 2 diabetes.  What’s a little unclear if what happens to excess calories if they are consumed with a lot of fiber but with little exercise.

The film presented some horrifying examples of kids and teens struggling with obesity, even requiring bariatric surgery.  Before moralizing about this, it’s important to note that the film shows that one can be “skinny fat” at the same time.

Certain MRI’s can show excess internal fat even in people who are not overweight.  I’d be more familiar with how that plays out with men. Generally, if a man is at least slightly lighter than average for his height, but has more upper body strength and muscle definition than average, and more endurance (when running, biking uphill, or swimming) than average, he really probably is in good shape.  Basketball players might be better off than football players.  (On ABC’s “Revenge”, the character Nolan looks younger than the actor Gabriel Mann’s 40+ years because the actor is so lean.  Whether or not you like the shaving, Michael Phelps should be in the best shape of all.  Oh, Shaun White looks pretty fit.)

The documentary covers the role of school systems.  Reagan-era budget cuts led public schools gradually to stop preparing their lunches on site and buying processed foods for kids.  Only recently has nutrition in public schools started to turn around.

Bill Clinton talks a lot in the film.  But it’s interesting that Michelle Obama, despite commendable efforts to encourage kids to exercise more, did not want to be interviewed.

The film presents teen obesity as a public health emergency and even a national security problem.  I can relate my own observations from the time I worked as substitute teacher in northern Virginia (2004-2007).  Generally, kids from higher income families in better-off areas looked good, were not obese, and often displayed reasonable athletic ability of some kind.  (If you want to be in dance or theater, you really have to be as fit as any professional athlete. I know that from my networking with, well, Hollywood.)  I noticed more obesity in lower income schools.  Hispanics seemed to be obese more often than whites, blacks, or Asians – and that comports with the same experience of native Americans when they switch to a western diet of processed foods (native Americans are especially prone to Type 2 diabetes). 

As a boy (and even as a grown man) I was “weaker” than average, even though for years I was “underweight”.  Could this have been due to a metabolic disorder that produces internal fat?  I have never been diagnosed with diabetes, and my numbers at age 70 are still reasonable.  But I have never taken medical tests that might show more insight into what might have happened (like glucose tolerance, various stress tests and Holter monitoring).  Would I do this for the purposes of investigative journalism – for somebody else’s film or maybe my own?  Possibly. It sounds like an idea, doesn’t it.  I can say that with Army Basic in 1968 at age 24, my physical performance improved (on the PCPT) to the low normal range.

I was raised as an only child with a one-income family.  Mother cooked most of the meals with fresh foods.  A couple of favorites in the 1950s were cheese soufflé (the film talks about cheese) and shrimp creole.  Ever summer, the first night in Ohio, we had a big sit-down dinner in a large dining room in the family home (mother’s side) near Oberlin.  I remember the meat loaf, hand-made, and molded salad. The increase in two-income families, an economic necessity and psychological change, means that parents have less time to cook with raw ingredients, and buy more processed foods.  But I can remember commercials on television as far back as the 1950s for sugar-coated cereal and candy that were offensively marketed to gullible children (and their parents)

My father had a deleterious attitude toward overweight people.  He had a saying, “pot belly, no ambition”.  That probably rubbed off on my attitude toward others, to the point that I would never consider a “romantic” relationship with someone who was overweight (or, later, smoked).  (When I watch “Modern Family”, I wonder how Mitch could be sexually attracted to Cam. And they made Dylan straight.  Is this "body fascism" or "lookism"?  Vox Media weighed in on this Monday, as I noted on my main blog, if reference to jokes about Chris Christie.  In any case, as CNN points out, Mitch and Cam are never shown kissng.)  I did see it as a “moral” problem about “personal responsibility”, a viewpoint that this film defeats.  But leaves open a question about how we will care about people. 

There are many other practices in our culture harmful to children, such as exposing them to too much media at toddler ages.  These could generate more documentary films. 

I saw the film at the early show Friday night at the Landmark E Street in Washington DC, before a sold out audience in a small auditorium (good thing I bought the ticket online).  I sat near a family of small children, some of whom liked it but one was screaming and crying at it. Almost nobody was eating popcorn, and Landmark's advertising of its snacks and boutique food before the show seemed ironic. 

TWC’s website for the film offers a challenge to go without processed food for 10 days.
I guess I had to be candid about this one. Compare this film to "Forks over Knives", "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead",  "King Corn" and Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me". 

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