The obesity rate in America has skyrocketed over the past few decades, especially among children, and the advocacy doc Fed Up, produced and narrated by Katie Couric, pins the blame firmly on the rise in our consumption of processed foods containing added sugar. In theory, you can subsist entirely on Snickers and McNuggets (and some vitamin supplements) and not gain an ounce, so long as you’re burning more calories than you ingest. Daily monitoring is too much of a pain in the ass for most people, though, and kids in particular are shaky on portion control, so the film does make a solid (if uncinematic) case for change.
Like most mediocre documentaries these days, Fed Up alternates between regurgitated facts (often presented in snazzy animated interludes), talking-head interviews, and a “human angle” involving a few regular folks who are struggling with the problem in question. The facts are by far the most persuasive element, especially when it comes to type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes. In 1980, there were zero cases among children; in 2010, there were over 50,000. Something’s causing that epidemic, and diet is the most likely culprit, as the shift coincides with aggressive efforts by the food industry to peddle fattening junk to school kids. Still, as usual, most of this information would be more useful in detailed written form, rather than served up as soundbites related by the authors of books on the subject. (Michael Pollan is one of those interviewed, and Fed Up is essentially a greasy snack compared to the gourmet meal that is Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals.)
Still, the film gets its point across ably enough using journalism that it doesn’t really need four fat teenagers to record video diaries about their unhappiness with their weight and their inability to do anything about it. For one thing, all four kids have parents who are nearly as big as they are, which tends to undermine Fed Up’s argument that greedy corporations and our cowardly government (even Michelle Obama gets scolded!) are to blame for the rise in childhood obesity. More than that, though, using crying children as a blatant emotional appeal seems manipulative—a problem with the film in general. At one point, the viewer is informed that encouraging kids to exercise is all but pointless, as it takes an hour and 15 minutes of bicycling to burn off the calories contained in a single 20-ounce soda. That’s true, but it implies that people have to strenuously work off every calorie they eat, when in fact we all burn 1,000-plus calories per day doing absolutely nothing except breathing. Exercising absolutely helps, so long as it isn’t viewed as a license to pig out, and claiming it doesn’t in order to emphasize the importance of diet is disingenuous. Nothing is gained when documentaries simplify complex issues so that they can remain “on message.”