Personal Health

Inside the World's Child Obesity Epidemic

These kids have a powerful foe made up of food and beverage industry giants, commercial media and U.S. Government policies.

Portrait of an obese preteen boy on a diet
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

When the curtain came down on Clifford Odets’ legendary 1935 New York opening of his agit-prop broadside Waiting for Lefty, audience members rose from their seats and stormed out of the theater, shouting “Strike!” in solidarity with the taxi-cab drivers and the Depression-era working class portrayed in the play.

Once the lights go up in theaters following Fed Up, audiences may have the urge to race down to their grocery stores, fast-food outlets and school cafeterias, yelling, “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to eat it anymore!”

An appetizing, bite-sized brand of advocacy documentary, Fed Up is an alarming yet tardy wakeup call on the crisis of U.S. childhood obesity. This is not a syrupy, feel-good story à la My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It is the sad, stomach-churning saga of my big fat American child.

Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped)narrator/co-producer Katie Couric, and author Laurie David team up for a 90-minute serving of facts, figures and interviews on how American kids have been increasingly super-sized over the past 30 years, largely the result of a sugar- and fat-heavy diet that is literally to die for.

Fed Up might go down as the Inconvenient Truth of the pediatric health crisis, a plus-size omnivore's dilemma not limited to expanding U.S. waistlines, but globally too. Over the course of two years, Soechtig and her cameras check up on the misfortunes of a small group of corpulent kids, each struggling to battle the bulge with the help of their parents. This is not some cheesy, sensationalized Biggest Loser reality show, but the real story of children who can’t seem to win against a powerful, hydra-headed foe made up of food and beverage industry giants, commercial media and U.S. government policies that have sucker-punched kids square in the gut.

Of course, the plight of overweight kids (and adults) has been on the plate of U.S. news reporting for years, but Soechtig and company slice it up into easily digestible, fact-driven portions. To name a few:

  • Over 80% of the products in a typical grocery contain added sugar.
  • Two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, costing billions of dollars each year in rising healthcare costs, not to mention the psychological price paid in depression and poor self-esteem, especially in teens.
  • A generic 12-ounce can of soda is loaded with a shocking 10 spoonfuls of sugar, which takes an hour or more of brisk bike-riding to burn off.

In one big gulp of not-so-fun facts, we learn that sugar is sugar, metabolically speaking, whether it’s called sucrose, dextrose, cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. The skinny on sugar is that it is fiendishly addictive, and when digested without the fiber normally associated with good diets, simply leaves us hungry and craving more. In one study, sugar was found to be eight times more addictive than cocaine.

It’s bad enough that kids today are targeted by a caloric cornucopia of TV commercials, marketing schemes and insidious product placements, all formulated to prod them into stuffing their faces with junk food. School cafeterias were once a haven for healthy (if bland) balanced lunches. But since the infiltration of the fast-food industry into cash-hungry public schools, they’ve been made over into “7-11s with books.” Pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, fried chicken, cookies, and those nasty nachos are high on the daily McMenu. Now kids have it their way every day, enabled by soda machines they can’t just say no to.

Soechtig persuasively offers that the U.S. government—and specifically the Department of Agriculture—have a place at the table of nutritional shame. On one hand, the government is tasked to protect children through lunch programs and “food pyramid” guidelines; yet it is also asked to serve the food and dairy industries, doling out regulations as well as billion-dollar yearly farm subsidies and loans. And any time politicians place an order for tougher dietary demands (like Sen. George McGovern did in 1977), armed-to-the-teeth agribusiness lobbyists go into a feeding frenzy. Beware, you may gag when a McDonald's spokeswoman earnestly shills, “Ronald McDonald never sells to children...he inspires through magic and fun.”

Even Michelle Obama, first mom and initiator of the ballyhooed “Let’s Move” campaign aimed to push kids into exercise, has had to take the “demonizing” of junk food off the front burner. To experts such as Michael Pollan (Food Rules) and Gary Taubes (Why We Get Fat), dietary ditties such as “energy balance” and “eat less, exercise more” cooked up by industry apologists are empty panaceas, essentially laying all the blame on the overweight and obese. Soechtig shows the kids trying their best to run and swim to shed pounds, but her cameras also catch one slouched in an easy chair, gobbling down chips while eating up a TV show. A lower grade for her failure to note that gym classes have also been victims of crash budgetary diets; meanwhile, back at home suburban parents drive their kids everywhere, making walking to school—and play—as old-school as saddle shoes. 

Are soda and other junk foods the “cigarettes of the 21st century,” as one expert warns? Other countries have begun banning junk-food ads expressly aimed at children. In the U.S. those ubiquitous “nutrition facts” labels fatuously omit recommended daily allowances for sugars. 

Let’s not sugarcoat it: American children are hugely at risk, and if parents and teachers aren’t sick to their stomachs yet, they’ll never be.

Thomas Delapa is a film critic who has written for the Chicago Tribune and AlterNet. He teaches film at the University of Denver.

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