By John Andersen
Last month, my wife, my 8-year-old son and I all sat down together and watched Fed Up, a documentary on America’s obesity epidemic. I thought initially that this would be a bit too heavy for an 8-year old, but I was quite impressed by his attention span and understanding of the movie, and it has been a positive experience as we as a family discuss what it means to eat more healthily.
Narrated and produced by Katie Couric (along with producer Laurie David and director Stephanie Soechtig), Fed Up exposes how much of what we have been told about diet, exercise, and weight loss over the past 30 years has been wrong. Traditional nutrition advice for weight loss has focused on calorie intake, assuming all calories are created equal. Further, because fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, fat content in food has been looked at as unhealthy.
Yet why is obesity still such a rising problem? Despite having “healthier” lower calorie, fat-free foods available everywhere, why do our waistlines continue to grow?
Fed Up clearly and convincingly tells us the answer: It’s not the fat. It’s the sugar.
It’s amazingly simple, really. Added sugar. It has zero nutritional benefit, yet it’s in everything. We have demonized fat for so long that we have been completely blindsided by the lacing of most every processed food with sugar. Bread, tomato sauce, sausage, yogurt…
Let’s quickly review what sugar does in our body. When we eat or drink foods with added sugar, this is absorbed into our bloodstream. Our bodies are not meant to handle all of these simple sugars we consume, so quite quickly our liver becomes overwhelmed and has no choice but to just start turning the sugar into fat. Let’s say that again: when we eat sugar, much of it goes directly into fat storage.
Similarly, our body sees simple carbohydrates that are in bread, pasta, and bagels just like sugar. So, by eating that whole wheat bread, organic pasta, or everything bagel you are adding to your fat stores.
It is also amazing that though the science is very clear, this has not yet trickled down into our grocery stores or into our political system. Despite obesity being arguably the largest health care crisis our country is facing, nobody seems to be doing anything loud and concrete about it. We are still stuck on fat-free yogurt and “Let’s Move.” Fed Up is surprisingly non-partisan, blasting both George Bush and Michelle Obama for their inaction in addressing the root cause of our obesity epidemic, sadly because of obvious political pressure.
Throughout the film, Dr. Robert Lustig, a renowned pediatric endocrinologist from the University of California, San Francisco, explains the toxicity of sugar using easily understandable facts and explanations. He tells the following points:
• Calories are NOT all equal. Our body uses 100 calories of almonds completely differently than 100 calories of soda. Why are we so hung up on counting calories? This has been ineffective as a sole means for weight loss.
• Sugar is a toxin. He equates the toxic effects of sugar on our bodies as comparable to ethanol: fat storage, hormonal changes, inflammation and agitation.
I recommend that every reader of this column, regardless of your weight, watch this documentary. And what are some solid, practical points that everyone can take from this movie? Let me suggest a few:
-Start counting grams of sugar, NOT calories. Recent guidelines suggest taking in no more than 25 grams of sugar a day, though there is zero nutritional value of added sugar in food! We get plenty of natural sugars through fruits and through carbohydrates. People who are battling weight should dramatically reduce if not eliminate sugar completely. Try counting grams of sugar and you’ll quickly be surprised how many you likely consume.
-Read ingredients! Know what you’re eating, don’t be fooled by “healthy” labeling. Again, don’t worry about how many calories a food has, worry about how many grams of sugar it has. Our son has this nailed. We regularly hear “Daddy, look how unhealthy this food is. It has 22 grams of sugar!” (That was one of his chocolate milks, by the way.)
-Try to eat as much whole foods as possible. Avoid processed foods. This usually means get most of your groceries from the outside/perimeter of the grocery store.
-Never drink soda, juice, or diet soda. Just drink water. Saying you don’t like water is like saying you don’t like air! Get a Nalgene bottle and cut the cord of soft drink addiction.
-Avoid fake sugars like sorbitol, stevia, etc. They can induce some of the same hormonal changes as sugar that lead to weight gain.
-Avoid fat free, low calorie foods. They all have added sugar and will ultimately cause more weight gain than their higher-fat counterparts.
To me, the most real and discouraging parts of the documentary were the families they interviewed. One in particular was a family where the son, who was in high school, was obese. When looking at the family’s diet, it was pretty typical – lots of cereal, pasta, juice, soda, etc. Over time, the family decided to go on a “sugar detox,” where they agreed to just do whole foods for 30 days. Everyone lost weight. This new way of eating continued and the son lost a substantial amount of weight. It really showed the power of everything that had been discussed through the whole documentary.
However at the very end of the documentary, they added a note that the son and family reverted back to their old ways of eating and the son gained all the weight back. That broke my heart. It was a clear message that the system is broken and it is way harder than it should be to eat well, and way easier than it should be to consume mass amounts of sugar.
The movie makes a charge that people and our government should start to vilify sugar like we do tobacco. How much time will it take before this is mainstream? Even Michelle Obama won’t go there. Fortunately, I think the wheels are in place, but it starts with you. Your home. Your family. Your kitchen.
For a good intro, watch Dr. Lustig’s viral YouTube video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.”