Exercise matters for your health, but not your waistline. Sugar-packed processed foods are the enemy. And cooking at home from scratch – not the old saw of diet and exercise – is the cure for the obesity epidemic. That is the message of Fed Up, a new documentary narrated by Katie Couric and backed by a handful of high-wattage producers, including Canadian bookstore maven Heather Reisman. Another of the executive producers is Laurie David, the woman behind the Oscar-winning climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Health reporter Kelly Grant spoke to Ms. David, Ms. Reisman, and the film’s director, Stephanie Soechtig, about the “dirty secret” that’s making people fat and why Ms. Reisman recently decided to ban junk food from the cash registers at Indigo.
Heather, you sell books for a living. What made you want to get involved in a documentary about the obesity epidemic?
Reisman: First and foremost, I’m a mom and a grandmother. As women, our responsibility is about the nurturing of our children. It just struck me that this is an important story that has to be told – the story of how, somehow, the food industry has evolved over time to a place where we’re being presented with so many things that aren’t good for us. The idea of this, the very essence of this, compelled me. Then I would see and I do see that there are many books out on the subject right now … and we can see trends at Indigo. We see that there is an increasing interest on behalf of Canadians to understand more about food and what they’re putting in their bodies.
Soechtig: Could I just interject for one minute? To say it’s a film about obesity leaves out a large portion of it. This is a film about food, right? Because if it’s about obesity then we would maybe think it only affects people who are obese and it doesn’t. We all eat this food.
David: It’s about what we’re eating and why it’s making everyone so sick.
So to Laurie, are you hoping this documentary will do for the debate about food what An Inconvenient Truth did for the debate about climate change?
David: I hope it does more. The thing about An Inconvenient Truth is that the solutions really do have to come from countries. The thing about Fed Up is the solution is in everyone’s hands. It’s in your kitchen. How powerful is that?
Before we get into the solutions, let’s talk about the problem. The film opens with the idea that there’s a dirty secret we don’t know about the conventional wisdom about diet and exercise. What is that dirty secret?
Soechtig: The dirty secret is the conventional wisdom about why we get fat is based on politics and marketing more than science. The science doesn’t back up the idea that this is about diet and exercise.
So what does the science actually say?
Soechtig: The science is that your body doesn’t know what to do with processed foods. Your body goes into metabolic chaos with processed foods … look at how much sugar we’re consuming. From 1977 to 2000 we doubled our intake of sugar. It wreaks havoc on your body and it’s addictive. We’ve been blaming fat for so many of our diseases, for cholesterol, for heart problems. But it turns out that sugar is really the underlying factor in many of those illnesses.
David: There’s a safe threshold for [sugar] and we’re way over the safe threshold because it’s in everything we’re eating. It’s not about what you’re putting in your tea or coffee. It’s what’s hidden in the spaghetti sauce you’re buying.
Early on in the film we meet a young girl, Maggie. She’s 12 years and she weighs 212 lbs. She swims four times a week. What is the message about exercise that you’re trying to tell with her story?
Soechtig: We don’t want to underplay the importance of exercise. Exercise is important for your health … but we can’t exercise our way out of the epidemic. The idea that you can burn off these food items is a marketing claim. Because then you can eat whatever you want, according to the food industry, as long as you exercise. And it’s your fault you’re fat because you didn’t exercise. That’s not true. The food is the problem.
David: There [are] not enough hours in a day for any kid or adult to exercise this food off. It’s impossible.
The film is a bit critical of Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move campaign. What’s your issue with Let’s Move?
Soechtig: I think Michelle Obama has done more than any of her predecessors. However, when she partnered with the food industry, her message got co-opted.
It went from eating real food and going to the farmers’ market to making processed food better. And that’s something you just can’t do.
Reisman: Isn’t the message, though, that first we need to be aware of what we’re eating? ... somehow what was a fantastic industry, the processed food industry was a great industry has over the last 30 or 40 years moved to a point where the food itself is engineered to make us eat too much and there is too much sugar in it ... Yes, you want to eat real food, but [they] could make food that doesn’t have so much sugar in them too.
David: The point is also that the food is available 24/7. The sugar, the processed food, the junk food, the fast food, everywhere you go, it gets pushed on you. If the food is addictive and you see it everywhere you go, what shot do you have, really?…even stores that don’t sell food are selling candy, junk, soda, all this stuff.
I can’t buy a book at Indigo without seeing candy at the checkout.
Reisman: Not anymore.
Have you taken it away?
Reisman: Out of every store. We took it out of the checkout [about two weeks ago.] You can still go into the tea and sweet area and no one is saying you can’t have one little bit [of sugar.] What I learned from this was to take it away from that impulse moment.
How hard was it to make the decision? The reason the candy is there is because it sells. It’s a money maker.
Reisman: Will this cost us a bit of money? Yes. It’s not the heart and soul of what the business is about. I think one of the great things about being my age is I can make the decisions that I believe in with all my heart and know that somehow or other we will make up for that.
So what are the steps you would like to see government take to fix the problem?
Soechtig: I think Quebec is a good example. The advertising ban to children in Quebec had tangible results. I’d like to see the United States and other countries take such bold measures.
Reisman: That’s worth celebrating, by the way. A Canadian province has already taken the initiative.
Should we see a skull and crossbones on the side of a can of coke?
David: Yes. Listen, we have a warning label on cigarettes and there should be a warning label on soda. Absolutely.
Reisman: And no food advertising to children. They eliminated cigarette advertising.
David: We want to see real change to nutrition labels. Why are their 56 names for sugar allowed to be used on a nutrition label? Why is sugar measured in grams? A measure that nobody knows what the heck that is. They need to change that to teaspoons. How hard is that to do?
The documentary points out that the rise of the obesity epidemic began in the late ’70s and early ’80s with the rise of processed foods. At the same time, women starting moving into the work force en masse. I look at this movement for cooking everything from scratch and I wonder, is this a recipe for sending women back to the kitchen? I’d have to quit my job to do this.
David: I don’t think that’s true … Cook on the days you do have time and make enough for the week. Change what you think a meal is. Can you put some sweet potatoes in the oven? What does that take, right? Some chick peas on your salad, there’s your protein. That can be a meal. I think we’re putting way too much pressure on ourselves. I think we’re also marketed to believe that cooking is hard and it takes too long. Honestly, scrambled eggs with some chopped kale in it? That is dinner.