The latest documentary to tackle the tangle of American food politics, Fed Up focuses its lens on one specific aspect of the you-are-what-you-eat battle: childhood obesity rates. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig and produced by Katie Couric and Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth), the film follows four overweight teens to their doctor’s appointments, sports practices, and home kitchens, in an attempt to answer the question of why these children can’t seem to lose weight.
“The solution is eating real food and cooking it yourself, because you would never put the amount of salt or sugar in that corporations do,” says David. “The majority of the food a lot of people are eating are made by strangers who don’t have your health at the forefront of your mind.” Armed with flip cameras, the subjects record video diaries, offering a window into their emotional, as well as physical, struggle with obesity. With interviews from former President Bill Clinton, Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, and leading doctors and researchers, the film argues that the sugar added to processed foods is largely to blame for rising obesity rates.
Rolling Stone spoke with Katie Couric about covering this topic for a decade, changing her own diet in making the film, and the intersection between journalism and advocacy.
How did you become interested in this topic?
I covered the story for a long time while I was at the Today Show; we did segments on food, health and nutrition. Then, as the anchor of the CBS Evening News for five years, I was just constantly reporting on the obesity epidemic or the latest research. So, as a result, I felt that I was just delivering bits and pieces of information — and never a comprehensive look at the problem. It seemed that nobody was really going beyond the headlines.
How has this subject changed since you started covering it?
I think that we’re at a tipping point now. I think many of us are realizing not only the implications of obesity in so many aspects of our lives — whether we are talking about militarypreparedness, global competitiveness or skyrocketing health care costs. I feel as if the issue is now front and center, and people are starting to recognize the conventional wisdom is not necessarily that wise. I think that there has been a lot of intentional confusion on the part of these companies and marketers, because if you understand what you’re eating it is going to affect their bottom line.
So it’s changed the way that you eat?
Yeah. I look at labels much more carefully, I think about what I’m eating. I try to make better decisions. I don’t buy low-fat food anymore. I used to be a massive cereal eater and I don’t do that as much. When I do buy cereal, just because it says “whole grain” or “part of a healthy diet” — I don’t necessarily buy into that anymore. I think I’m a much conscientious shopper, and the choices I make are more informed.
Where does the responsibility for educating people lie? Is it simply a personal responsibility, or a social one?
It can be at the top, with an examination of how we are marketing to our kids. Maybe we should consider not having the USDA promote American agriculture and come up with our dietary guidelines, because it is such an inherent conflict of interest. I think there are things we can do at the highest level of government; there are also things we can do at a local level when it comes to our food and what our kids are being served every day on our school cafeteria. When you’re sitting at the kitchen table, have a conversation about what you’re eating, what we are buying and cooking.
I think that one of the ways that manufactures get us to buy “convenient” foods by making us think it is too inconvenient to buy whole foods, or to put a little effort into what you are eating. I think we have been brainwashed to believe that. This is the first generation that will live a shorter life span. That’s an unconscionable legacy we are leaving to our children. We need to make some changes to our own lives, but also try to demand changes on a much bigger level.
This is obviously a passion project for you. How do you see your role as a journalist informing your role as activist for subjects like this?
I think the ultimate goal of any journalist is to probe and ask why, and actually find out what’s going on. My feeling is: let people see this and let them make the changes they want to make in their own lives. I’m not standing over them wagging my fingers saying, You must do X, Y, and Z. All I’m saying is that people deserve the information they need to have in order to make educated choices. I’ve come away feeling that there would be some helpful things that could be done at a national level, but I’m really leaving that up to the consumer. I’m not going to be staging protests on Capitol Hill, but I am hoping that people will be motivated to demand action from things as simple as having labels on the food they are purchasing that actually tell us what is in that food.