Global Health NOW’s Jackie Frank spoke with Laurie David yesterday before a screening of her film Fed Up at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Best known for producing An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy Award-winning film about global warming, David’s latest film takes on the sugar- and fat-laden American diet and the impact of the US obesity epidemic.
The obesity epidemic has been a major public health concern for a long time and the subject of numerous studies and reports. What does your film add to the discussion?
I think that the film succeeds in highlighting a lot of things that the American public didn’t know, and that I didn’t know—and I thought I knew a lot about food. The government knew 39 years ago that our diet was going off the rails and that we were eating too much sugar, and did nothing to warn the public. That shocked me. Sugar is a major culprit that nobody really talks about and is a huge part of the obesity and diabetes problems.
I think there are so many things that the general public has been either ill-informed about or been lied to about, and that includes how food is labeled and how much hidden sugar there is in the things we’re eating every day.
There’s a safe and unsafe threshold for consumption of sugar and the majority of us are eating way more of it every day than we should be for a healthy life.
What led you to focus a film on the unhealthy American diet?
I think if you care about the environment, ultimately you’re going to be looking down at your dinner plate. It’s a natural progression to go from global warming to what’s the impact of what I’m eating having on the planet.
How would you rate the performance of government health agencies in addressing the obesity epidemic?
I think the government has fallen way short on protecting the American public. Bill Clinton says it himself in the movie. He says he should have done more. Where is the Surgeon General by the way? Who warned us about tobacco and warned us about AIDS? Where is the surgeon general warning us about sugar?
One really simple thing the FDA could do, as they are looking into changing labels on food packaging, is require that sugar amounts be provided in teaspoons instead of grams, a measurement that no one understands—and that the food industry knows no one understands. What a simple thing that would wake people up and provide some real information to make decisions about what products to buy.
Do you think that it will take a campaign on the scale of the anti-tobacco fight to make meaningful progress in the obesity epidemic?
I do believe that in maybe five years—and I hope it's sooner—that the public is going to look at sugar-sweetened beverages the way they look at cigarettes. I also believe that sugar-sweetened beverages should have warnings on them the way we put warning labels on packs of cigarettes. I do believe there are going to be legal battles as well.
Is there any room for optimism amid all the bad news covered in the film?
For me, I think the biggest ray of hope is that the solution is actually something that's really fun, super-healthy, bonding and loving, and that is cooking food yourself. Cooking real food and sharing it, sitting down around a table, connecting with other people and eating well. If that’s the solution to the problem, that’s a pretty good solution. I'm hoping that's going to be an easier pill to swallow than the crap we’re eating that’s making our country sick and will bury us in health care costs.