Personal Health

An Unexpected Reason Americans Are Overweight

The new documentary "Fed Up" reveals how Big Food pushed the government to give out compromised health information.

Photo Credit: Radharani

The documentary Fed Up,released in theaters on May 9, untangles the roots of obesity in America’s youth. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up does not shrink from telling viewers how the government’s decades-long capitulation to Big Food and its lobbyists has fostered an epidemic of excess pounds. The national focus on diet, diet foods and exercise is not abating the obesity epidemic and actually making it worse, charges the film.

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Examples of capitulation to Big Food are many in the film. In 1977, the McGovern Report warned about an impending obesity epidemic and suggested revised USDA guidelines to recommend people eat less foods high in fat and sugar. The egg, sugar and other Big Food industries, seeing a risk to profits, demanded that guidelines not say "eat less" of the offending foods but rather eat more "low-fat" foods. Ka-ching. They won over the objection of Sen. McGovern.

In 2006, the United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO) released similar food recommendations and then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy G. Thompson actually flew to Geneva, according to Fed Up, to threaten WHO that if the guidelines stood, the US would withdraw its WHO financial support. Again, Big Food won.

The U.S. government plays both sides of the obesity street--admonishing people to eat right while pushing the foods that make them fat--because of the USDA's double mission of protecting the nation's health and protecting the health of the nation's farmers. According to Fed Up, the low fat movement allowed the USDA to maximize those split loyalties.

First, in order to maintain taste in low-fat foods (which tend to be bland once the fat is removed), sugar became the evil stand-in. Much of Fed Up examines the role of excess sugar in obesity, metabolic disorder and food addiction, especially in soft drinks. (The film's exposure of Big Food's financially-driven infiltration of public school lunchrooms with junk food is astonishing.) But the low-fat craze had another pernicious effect. All that unused fat had to go somewhere, says Fed Up,and it ended up in the dairy industry's cheese operations. Even as the USDA recommended "low-fat" diets, it worked with the industry group, Dairy Management, to "cheesify" the American diet and even worked with Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy's and Domino's!

Appearing in Fed Up are food experts Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Deborah Cohen (author of A Big Fat Crisis), former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, Bill Clinton and award-winning reporter Duff Wilson who uncovered high-level conflicts of interest in the food and beverage industry. Fed Up chronicles the struggle of obese children who have become addicted to food through unethical advertising, snack ubiquity, enabling parents (who also look overweight in the film), bad school environments and, primarily, a government that has caved to Big Food. The government practiced similar complicity with Big Tobacco, Fed Up accurately points out, until the death statistics could not be ignored anymore.

It is too bad that Fed Up ignored what many believe is a bigger reason for American obesity than sugar: Big Meat's use of growth enhancers like antibiotics, hormones, ractopamine and even arsenic. It certainly makes sense that chemicals and hormones that balloon livestock into huge carcasses with no increase in the amount of their feed would have the same effect on people who eat the meat. But only recently has the role of antibiotics in childhood obesity been examined, notably by Martin Blaser of New York University Langone Medical Center. Eighty percent of U.S. antibiotics go to livestock and residues are regularly found in U.S. meat.

While the U.S.' affair with sugar and soft drinks is decades old, it is only since 1997 that Big Ag started treating meat with the asthma-like drug ractopamine, largely unnoticed by consumers, to produce weight gain in animals. It is also in the late 1990s that extreme obesity and heightened asthma rates (sometimes linked to hormones) surfaced in children. Ractopamine, antibiotics, the beef hormones oestradiol-17, zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate and arsenic (used by U.S. poultry producers for weight gain) are all prohibited in most of the EU. Europe also has much lower obesity rates than the industry-pleasing U.S. which Fed Up so well describes.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter and the author of "Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health (Random House)."