This spring, I attended an advance screening and press event for an exciting new documentary film called Fed Up. It’s been playing in theaters across the country, and if you haven’t already seen it, I hope you will.
Fed Up is one of the most courageous and outspoken explorations of this country’s obesity and chronic-disease crisis to date.
It’s also a great example of how Revolutionary Act No. 3 — “Rage Against the Machine” — can inspire healthy transformation.
The film is the brainchild of TV journalist and talk-show host Katie Couric, who co-executive produced and narrated the movie. She says her desire to make the film was fueled by both her personal and her professional frustration with how little decent, deep reporting she saw being done on the root causes of obesity.
The more Couric dug into the topic — for herself, her family, and her audience — the more she realized that the most essential and scientific truths about the drivers of obesity and disease simply were not reaching the American population.
She saw how special interests had either confounded or co-opted public policy and public-health information, and how mainstream media had more or less gone along for the ride.
The trickle-down effect? Mass confusion — among the general public as well as a great many influential experts — about what actually makes us fat and sick. And about what we need to do to turn things around.
As a result of that confusion, we’re suffering runaway rates of obesity and disease. We’re enduring economy-killing healthcare costs. And we’re raising at least one generation of children who are predicted to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.
Couric found this state of affairs dismaying and maddening. So she invited co-executive producer Laurie David (best known for An Inconvenient Truth) and producer-director Stephanie Soechtig (of 20/20 fame) to help her look beyond pat answers, and to reveal the realities too many other media outlets were ignoring or getting wrong.
The resulting film is riveting. It puts a stake through the heart of a great many popular myths and misperceptions about our nation’s health and weight challenges. This includes the notion that if we just had more willpower and exercised a bit more, we’d all be fine.
So what is the truth? Spoiler alert (and this won’t surprise anyone who’s been reading this magazine for long): It’s not so much about whole-food calories and fats as it is about sugar-packed, addictive, metabolism-disrupting processed foods and beverages.
Here’s another inconvenient truth the film spells out: While exercise and physical activity are absolutely essential to health, fitness, and well-being, they cannot, by themselves, reverse the health-crushing, body-warping effects of a nutrient-poor, toxin-heavy, processed-foot diet.
I won’t give away the entire film (you can watch the trailer and sign up for the Fed Up Challenge at www.fedupmovie.com). But I will say this: The more you learn about how badly corrupted our understanding of health has been, the more apt the film’s title becomes.
And this brings us to this month’s Revolutionary Act: “Rage Against the Machine.”
Let me clarify that normally I’m not a big fan of raging about anything. And I’m not suggesting that merely getting fed up, riled up, and infuriated about our unhealthy status quo is going to do anyone a whole lot of good.
But I do think that feeling a collective sense of moral outrage (as well as grief, compassion, and hope) about our current conundrum can be a powerful force for momentum and courageous action.
During the Q & A portion of the Fed Up press event I attended this April in New York City, I asked Couric (whose TV work relies heavily on advertising revenue) whether she had any anxiety about blowback from powerful food-industry advertisers.
Her answer suggested that she had certainly considered that possibility. “I’m now at a point in my career where I feel I can speak out about these issues,” she said.
And if she were a younger, less-established journalist? Couric put it this way: “I’m not sure that I would be willing to take that risk.”
The problem, of course, is that the majority of mainstream journalists don’t have anything like Couric’s level of journalistic freedom and fearlessness.
This goes a long way toward explaining the state of today’s health media. It also explains why our confusion has become so entrenched, and why making healthy choices has become so challenging.
So, what can we do about this? How can each of us begin to push back on the “machine” that’s been working against our health and happiness for far too long?
Here’s my prescription:
1) Start from a place of empowerment: Fearlessly assess where, in the past, you have allowed yourself to be a victim of circumstance. Acknowledge your own vulnerabilities and moments of collusion with the unhealthy machine. Then decide to begin doing things differently. Use your intelligence and creativity to ask, “How can I become a more powerful force for healthy change in my own life and the lives of others?”
2) Speak up and speak out: If you are frustrated by the unhealthy choices and influences being pushed on you and your family at work, school, restaurants, stores, even hospitals, say something. Tell folks in charge what you think, and why. Do some healthy educating and inspiring. Use whatever authority or influence you have to advocate for a better way, and take some satisfaction in your proactive pushback.
3) Adopt a damn-the-torpedoes approach to healthy living: Know that you are going to be surrounded by unhealthy nudges. You will be offered doughnuts at work, soda at the doctor’s office, candy at the bank, cookies on the airplane. Take your healthy snacks, water bottle, and healthy determination with you everywhere you go.
4) Focus on the positive: Revel in your healthy resistance. Look for ways you can make not-so-great situations better by cultivating your willingness, creativity, and healthy moxie. Be grateful for the steps others are taking to make healthy living easier, and for how they are advocating on behalf of a healthier world.
Ultimately, the best way to rage against anything you don’t like is to support something substantially better. Or better yet, create and share something you absolutely love.
Look for ways to do that in your everyday life, and have faith that before long, the destructive machines in our midst will cede their power to the beautiful and life-sustaining systems we all create and embrace together.
Decoding Health Media (May 2014) — The truth about special-interest influences on nutrition reporting.
Beating Food Addiction (March 2014) — Mark Hyman, MD, on how we can beat our addiction to sugar, processed foods, and other refined carbs.
Scary Food Science (October 2010) — How advanced food technologies mess with our minds and our metabolisms, and how we can fight back.
Can School Lunch Be Saved? (September 2012) — How a growing movement is creating healthier eating habits for the next generation.