Yes, I know there is a documentary with a similar name opening this month, but I was fed up before the movie. And now, I am really fed up. Let me count the ways.
First, I am fed up with the myriad of folks acting as if they are qualified to coach, instruct and counsel people about nutrition when these self-proclaimed experts have little, if any, nutrition background, training or experience — other than, of course, the fact that they do eat food themselves.
(Okay, I know what you are likely saying to yourself (I hear it all the time) “But, Dr. Robison, the registered dietitians (or other professionally trained nutrition professionals) I have seen were 1) no good, 2) not helpful or 3) in the pocket of ‘big food.'”)
My answer is that there are good nutrition professionals and not so good ones. Just as with interactions with any health professionals, some will be a good fit for any particular client and some will not. You can say the same about car mechanics, but I am willing to bet when your car breaks down (unless you can fix it yourself), you don’t take it to a butcher or a jeweler. And I would also bet if the mechanic you use is dishonest or just plain sucks, you will look for another mechanic rather than bring your car to a banker or schoolteacher.
The second reason I am really fed up: These untrained, often relatively uneducated (in nutrition) folks have little, if any, understanding about the complexities and nuances involved in nutrition and health, or the equally complex intricacies of human metabolism, or the powerful relationships between food and emotions. (Why should they? I haven’t got a clue why my car is making that freaking noise!)
The result is that these self-appointed “experts” quickly latch onto the latest outrageous nutrition nonsense du jour – herbal detox, magic foods that burn fat, mystical berries from the Amazon rainforests, etc. And since they are unlikely to read the latest research on these nuances and complexities, they cling to outdated, oversimplified traditional dogma – calories in versus calories out, BMI, worksite weight-loss competitions – back to 17th-century mechanisms and Skinner boxes.
This brings me to the third reason why I am really fed up, which directly has to do with the new documentary “Fed Up.” By way of full disclosure, I have not seen the full movie. So, it is possible that there may be some reasonably sane, evidence-based information of value buried in the documentary somewhere. What I have seen are promotional trailers and interviews with “celebrity nutritionist” Katie Couric, all spouting sensationalist, fear-based, inaccurate, non-science guaranteed to make people more confused and anxious about food than they already are — if that is even possible. What a shame that Ms. Couric, who has done great work promoting cancer awareness and treatment, has gotten mixed up with perhaps well-meaning, but clearly misguided, folks who have put together a documentary long on hyperbole and short on reality. Let me give you four quick examples.
The trailer leads with stern-faced doctors in jackets and ties delivering these two frightful warnings: “Your brain lights up with sugar just like it does with cocaine or heroin; you are going to become an addict,” and “This is the first generation of American children expected to lead shorter lives than their parents.”
This is followed immediately by Ms. Couric with more comforting news – “Over 95% of all Americans will be overweight or obese within two decades,” and “By 2050, one out of every three Americans will have diabetes.” All this and more in just a two-minute, 25-second trailer. To keep this blog shorter than my first book, I will just respond with bullets and supply links if you want to examine the details.
1) “Your brain lights up with sugar just like it does with cocaine or heroin; you are going to become an addict.” – It is true that the area of your brain (mesolimbic dopamine system) activated when you do cocaine or heroin is activated when you eat sugar. Unfortunately for their frightening, proposed hypothesis, the same area is also activated by the following: Music, humor, winning a prize, expecting to win a prize, a mother recognizing her child, attractive faces, smiling faces – oh yes – and lest I forget – being in love! (The plausibility of sugar addiction & its role in obesity & eating disorders, D. Benton.)
2) “This is the first generation of American children expected to lead shorter lives than their parents.” This statement originates in an article in the “New England Journal of Medicine” (March 2005, 352:1138-1145) in which the authors offered this frightening scenario:
“The steady rise in life expectancy during the past two centuries may soon come to an end… obesity may shave up to 5 years off the average life spans in the coming years.”
Fortunately for us all, there is still a modicum of responsible journalism left in the world, so when the same authors were asked for the derivation of their scary claim just a month later in an exposé in the journal “Scientific American” titled “Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?” they responded with:
“These are just back of the envelope, plausible scenarios. We never meant them to be portrayed as precise.”
For those with minimal scientific training, I will call on my many years of graduate study to translate this for you; it means: “We made it up!”
3,4) “Over 95% of all Americans will be overweight or obese within 2 decades,” and “By 2050, one out of every three Americans will have diabetes.” I combined these two because: a) they both came from Ms. Couric in the trailer, and b) I can’t really prove they are wrong anymore than I can prove that because Olympic swim times have steadily improved over the past few decades, eventually swimmers won’t actually have negative times.
In fact, unlike the case of the swimming analogy, this could actually come to pass with weight and diabetes if the health authorities continue lowering the cutoff points so everyone will eventually be – to quote the eminent Lake Wobegon epidemiologist Dr. Garrison Keillor – “above average.”
Just for a change of pace – if we are really interested in the reality rather than the rhetoric on weight trends in this country, (from data that come from measured weights in a representative sample of the population) we only have to turn to the February issue of the New England Journal of Medicine to find out that: (JAMA; February 26, 2014, Vol 311, No. 8)
“Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012.”
And, in fact, as far as our kids are concerned:
“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2-to 5-year-old children.”
I wonder if we should be fearful that by 2050 our children will disappear?
(As a related aside, I had to chuckle a bit when the stern doctors scolded the food companies for wanting to “make money” at the same time the medical establishment is lowering guidelines so more and more people are considered to be diseased and, therefore, needing treatments – (to make money?) – can you say “The Statinization of America“?)
So, there we have it. In conclusion, I am really fed up because the producers of this movie clearly did not do their research. And as a result, there will be lots more of my #1 and #2 reasons for being really fed up. This will likely keep people in constant confusion, anxiety and fear every time they pick up something to put in their mouths, and this will likely be worse for their health than anything they could possibly eat.
PS: If you are interested in reading a more detailed critique of the awful science in this film, a colleague sent me this link after I wrote this blog:
Yes, I know this is not a completely unbiased review (of course I am not sure where you would find such a thing anywhere on this planet), and while I do not agree with everything in it, if you focus on the science they cite to critique the distortions that are ubiquitous throughout this film, there is a lot that can be learned.