Scapegoating Sugar?

David Despain criticizes the new Katie Couric-narrated documentary about youth obesity, Fed Up, for its single-minded focus on added sugar, while largely ignoring other factors, such as exercise:

While added sugars are a significant part of the problem because they are widely used to make food appetizing, they are far from the whole problem, says Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and listed as a member of the scientific advisory board for Fed Up. “In terms of overall health outcomes, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the conjoined importance of what we do with our forks and what we do with our feet,” he says.

If Dr. Katz is straightforward in his criticism, he is joined by many other nutrition experts and organizations who have taken a harder line against the film. Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist and AND spokesperson, says that the film’s minimizing of the benefits of exercise is “truly unfortunate” and “irresponsible,” noting that sugar is a quickly absorbed source of carbohydrate that is crucial for exercise performance. Moreover, the film’s focus on sugar as a major factor in contributing to obesity is a “biased view” not shared by the majority of objective scientists, says James O. Hill, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver and an ASN spokesperson. “Research is clear now that adding sugar to a diet and taking away the same number of calories does not cause weight gain or any other of the outcomes attributed to sugar in this film,” Hill says.

Michael O’Sullivan finds that the film could have done more to address a deeper issue at work, noting that federally mandated nutrition labels don’t include the “daily value” percentage for sugar:

[T]he real problem isn’t sugar, but sugar education. If consumers only knew that the stuff is not just addictive, but poisonous — one of the film’s experts calls it a “chronic, dose-dependent” liver toxin — they might make better choices at the checkout counter. Unfortunately, “Fed Up” doesn’t seem to recognize the problem of food deserts, which can hamstring even the best-intentioned efforts to teach people how to eat right. (For an exposé of the food desert phenomenon, in which many communities simply don’t have options other than buying processed foods, I strongly recommend the 2012 documentary “A Place at the Table.”)

Celebrities appearing in “Fed Up” include former president Bill Clinton and former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler, both of whom bemoan the lack of government foresight on obesity and diabetes. (Opponents of so-called nanny state efforts to regulate, say, soft drink size are given short shrift.) But it’s author-activist Michael Pollan who delivers the film’s most succinct message when he says that the single best way to improve one’s diet is simply to cook what you eat. And no, that doesn’t mean microwaving a Hot Pocket.

Paula Forbes faults the documentary for ignoring economic inequality’s role in making Pollan’s suggestion difficult to put into practice:

In fact, it is on this point that the film stumbles into blitheness. Michael Pollan at one point states home cooking can be cheaper than fast food as well as being healthy. This he holds, uncontested in the film, as proof that all we need to do is cook ourselves. But he misses the point.

It’s not just about money, it’s about time. The US Congress just defeated a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. This means the federally mandated minimum wage remains $7.25. (And guess who lobbied against the increase?) Who is going to crisp that kale, who will visit the neighborhood farmers market — which Pollan suggests is a panacea — that will magically appear in the food deserts of New York and Newark and in the poor precincts of Baltimore not to mention Tuscaloosa and Kokomo, if you’re working 70 hours a week to make ends meet?