Thursday, June 12, 2014


By Monika Tarkowska-Carter, CPT, LWMC, HLC 2

Probably like many professionals who work in the field of nutrition and health I was impatiently awaiting the release of the much talked about movie "Fed Up". And, as it oftentimes happens, I was pleasantly surprised by some important and critical points that the movie brought up, but that had never been talked about before (at least not in the main media), while at the same time disappointed by so many issues that didn't even get mentioned or got somewhat twisted around.
Let me explain......

First, I have to admit that I originally felt compelled to do what many critics do: talk about the pluses and minuses of the movie. But then I read a few blog posts from nutritionists and various writers from the world of health (trainers, fat loss specialists, bloggers, etc.) and it made me rethink what I really wanted to talk about.

For the sake of clarity though, and as a springboard to our discussion, I am going to mention a few important points that, I think, the movie got right, and a few crucial ones that it missed completely. 


When it comes to calories we were finally told that a notion of "a calorie is a calorie" is completely false - a HUGE kudos for the movie.      

In simpler terms, when subjected to the same 300 calories coming from a very different source (for example, processed and therefore very easily digestible food like a soda drink versus a whole food like vegetable or fruit containing fiber) the body behaves completely differently than we previously thought. That's why a person who eats the same amount of calories from a diet of processed foods will have a much higher chance of becoming overweight or obese over time than a person eating a diet of whole foods. The 300 calories from processed food not only get almost completely absorbed since the body doesn't have to do any work to break it down, but they also cause an entirely different hormonal cascade than whole food. [The hormonal responses to food (a very broad subject) are far beyond the scope of this article due to their complexity.] But apart from the varied hormonal response between processed and whole foods, an important, and rather simple, fact to mention is the law of thermogenesis. It takes the body more calories and effort to deal with whole foods than something highly processed, simply because it has to do all the job of breaking it down to smaller particles, digesting it and then assimilating and absorbing nutrients. So while all 100 calories in Coke will get straight into your system (and your hips), only a part of 100 calories from protein like chicken breast or a vegetable like broccoli will, simply due to the calories it takes your body to "deal with" it. Protein has the highest thermogenesis effect of all foods since about 30% gets "lost" in the process of digestion. Taking the above chicken breast as an example, only about 70 of the 100 total calories would actually get absorbed. (I would highly recommend not taking this fact as an incentive to eat more protein just because you are not absorbing all of it. That's the way scientific facts usually get misunderstood when humans want to interpret them to fit their own needs.) J So, CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE - we finally  got that.   


So, as much as sugar is to blame for a lot of our obesity and metabolic problems, it is NOT the only villain and it is NOT entirely true that total calories don't matter. Unfortunately, they do. I can attest to that with my 20+ years of experience as a trainer, holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach. And while my first goal with clients has always been teaching them to eat whole foods rather than count calories, when it comes to weight loss (in most cases) one has to look at overall calories as well. There is just no way around it, especially when dealing with people who have no, or limited, nutritional knowledge. Learning about portion sizes and portion control and how many calories certain foods contain is still an important part of nutrition education, at least at the beginning of the process. And this becomes especially important with restaurants portions currently being as oversized as they are.

Interestingly, it is also later on in the process, when clients want to lose the infamous "last 10 pounds" and get really lean, that we are often forced  to look at this issue again. At that point, it often really IS about the calories in versus calories out and various necessary calculations, since then we are dealing with the necessity to create a very subtle (to prevent muscle loss and under-eating), but specific calorie deficit to cause not only weight loss but, more importantly, fat loss. So while I do think that we as humans (it's not only Americans anymore) eat way TOO MANY CARBOHYDRATES (just for the record, I am not paleo or anti-carb!), and SUGAR ESPECIALLY is a huge problem, it is NOT the only one. We eat TOO MUCH OF EVERYTHING.

And although it is not really true that you will gain 100 pounds over 5 years eating one 200-calorie cookie every day, (that's what a simple arithmetic would have you believe) simply because your body just doesn't work this way and has many different mechanisms to keep itself in check, how many calories we eat in total still matters and that will never change. Can I eat more vegetables and fruit than chips and soda without gaining weight? Probably. A lot more? Not really, if you're looking strictly at equal amounts of calories (most people simply wouldn't be able to do so anyway because of the volume created by extra fiber). So, an important point here that was missed by the movie, in my opinion, is that TOTAL CALORIES STILL DO MATTER. The so called "energy balance" is difficult for many people to understand and implement in their daily life, but it is not impossible. It requires knowledge, consistency, a strong resolve and patience. And that's where the movie gets it wrong.


The issue of BEING TIRED AND LACKING ENERGY TO EXERCISE AND EAT WELL due to the EFFCTS OF SUGAR ON OUR HORMONAL SYSTEM is portrayed correctly (thank you Dr. Robert Lustig), but makes too general of a statement, in my opinion, by excusing people from exercise and healthy lifestyle habits. Unhealthy lifestyle habits, lack of energy and lack of exercise are the results of many factors, NOT just too much sugar. It is unfortunately also a fact that some people simply do not wish to eat better or exercise because it puts too much responsibility on SELF. And that's not comfortable.


 And this brings me to an important point and closer to what I wanted to talk about in the first place - the movie seems to absolve us all of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. This is something I have a real issue with. When it comes to food, like many other things in life, we almost always have a choice. Sometimes it might not be the best choice, but it is still a choice between better or worse. And trust me, I am far from talking about perfection here. The movie seems to convey an overwhelming message that we are powerless; powerless against the food industry, big corporations, and fast food manufacturers in particular. So my question to you is this: When did you ever lose that power? Who took it away from you? Who told you to buy junk food when you can go to the farmers market and get healthier food instead? Yes, I know cost* is an issue, but I think a bigger issue is that you want convenience, you don't want to cook, you don't want to be bothered and want a quick solution and it's just too much effort to be healthy. And yes, I am talking to YOU! I always loved the saying that "if you don't spend time and money on your health now, you will spend it later on illness". There is so much truth to this. How often do you ever think about it this way? Why are humans so short-sighted? When I talk to my clients about their goals I always remind them that they have a choice. What they do every day, how they plan their day, when and what they eat, who they keep as their role models and who they socialize with, all those factors are entirely in their control. I often get strange looks when I say this as if it was some huge surprise. But the truth is, you do have a choice. The question is: how important is that choice for you? And what are you willing to do to make that choice and reach your goals? So, if you care about health at all, maybe that's where the whole discussion needs to start. YOU DO HAVE A CHOICE AND YOUR HEALTH IS YOUR PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY - the movie misses this point entirely. Worse, it makes us think we have no say in what we buy and what we eat.  
*A quick digression on the cost of healthy food.......I find it amazing that it is often the most well to do people who shiver at the idea of spending more money on healthier and slightly more expensive food choices while they have no problem driving around in their Bentleys and owning multiple homes. Maybe we have our priorities upside down? Or maybe we just prefer to spread our oversized cheap-food-fed bodies in luxury cars while driving to multiple doctors' appointments for more medications to control our various ailments, most easily preventable, if those priorities were in the right place to begin with? And don't get me wrong, I do feel for those that are on very tight budgets and have to try to save anyway they can. I feel enraged that in a country as advanced as America we seem to be incapable of making sure that people have good AND HEALTHY food to put on their tables at a reasonable cost , and that so many people go hungry.  But for most of us, it IS about priorities.


Now let's get back to the title of my article and talk about the history of food in America. It is only since the industrial revolution that food supply has slowly become so adulterated, but much more so in the last 30-40 years. Due to post-war shortages the emphasis was on producing cheap food in large quantities. The fifties and sixties were all about convenience and cutting cost, not about quality, and advertising stressed how easy your days and meals would be if only you "dined" at McDonald's and ate canned and frozen food at home on a daily basis. But many families still cooked meals at home and what manufacturers put into food was actually food to a big degree (strange as it may sound). But with time and growth of food corporations, which were quickly becoming financial giants, (as well as advancements in technology), there was an ALL-OUT DRIVE FOR PROFIT. And the best way to increase it was to decrease the quality of food, put more junk, preservatives and chemicals into it, and process it more, so the shelf life would be extended forever and ever. No loss, all gain. Or was it? It was loss for American citizens, gain for corporations and their ridiculously high compensated CEOs. But long-term loss for citizens unfortunately most often becomes a loss for governments. We are paying dearly as a country for what we have done to our health: the sky- rocketing cost of healthcare, the ever increasing epidemic of obesity and other serious diseases, the future of our kids and our nation. it really a loss?'s another gain! Now with the above problems we have created.......

6. .......a HUGE PROFIT FOR THE DRUG INDUSTRY. And it's doing well. Really well. And we are quietly (and not so quietly) contributing. Yes, you and me, unless we decide to do something about it. As our country's health gets worse, we will only be more and more dependent on various medications. That's heaven for the drug industry. We have just single-handedly secured their financial future. And we have only ourselves to thank for it.

So first it looked like it was a loss for governments, too. (I am using plural here since it is quickly becoming not only an American problem). Our government talks about the cost of healthcare. They talk about disease. You think they really care about your health? Think again.

And here I am finally coming to the main point I wanted to make after seeing the movie (yes, finally). :)

No matter how one looks at it, in the end it all comes down to money. Money that is accepted by politicians from interested lobbying groups/corporations to secure their successful elections and positions they so dearly want to keep. Unless we get rid of the lobbying system in this country, nothing is ever going to change because money speaks louder than anything. I would go as far as saying that the country where lobbyists are allowed to contribute to politics is not truly a democratic one. Everything and everyone can be bought and sold. No exceptions.

Here's a smart quote from President Johnson's State of the Union address in 1906. There is no more appropriate time in history than now to take this advice seriously.

"I again recommend a law prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign  expenses of any party. (....) Let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly."

So, let's break it down a little by looking at who really controls our food system.......


A few simple facts:

It is no secret that the all-powerful food and drug industry lobbyists have huge influence on government (and not only) policies and guidelines. The movie gives many examples of how far and deep reaching this influence really is; how much good research gets silenced, including that of seemingly independent organizations like WHO (World Health Organization). This particular example should have everyone roaring in disbelief and outrage. Their conclusion on the necessity to limit sugar consumption worldwide to 6-9 teaspoons per day never got published in their new guidelines due to the threat from the US representative (Bush administration) of withholding over 400 million dollars of financial support to the above organization. Hmmm.....Surprised? Don't be. This is how policies, at least in this country, (but not only) are made. MONEY CONTROLS EVERYTHING (politicians, more than anything, want to get re-elected and people in powerful positions want to hold on to them).

Organizations like A.N.D. (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - previously ADA) are hugely influenced by the biggest food corporations. Those actually provide continuing education courses for the A.N.D. members. (This is one of the reasons why I never wanted to become a Registered Dietitian or have anything to do with this organization.)

American Academy of Family Physicians, an institution supposed to promote health, partners with Coca-Cola and the like. Even a healthy "Let's Move" campaign, initiated by Michelle Obama, is sponsored by Nestle, General Mills and Kellogg. Seems crazy? Not so much. This is how things are done (or should I say: this is how nothing gets done).

USDA is responsible for both public health and promoting agriculture, which becomes a real oxymoron. It subsidizes crops like corn, driving down the cost of sugar. The result? Sugar has become one of the cheapest food commodities around. This only makes it easier to use sugar as one of the main ingredients in food production today. The movie even makes an accusation that this is the direct way the American government subsidizes obesity. I couldn't agree more.

People who used to work for the food corporations now work for the USDA and vice versa. The same goes for the FDA.

Misleading marketing campaigns are specifically geared towards kids, with no government oversight or regulations.

American schools are probably some of the worst and least healthy places to eat and they have no budget for better, healthier food. Who has the biggest say in how school budgets are made? And who stands to benefit from this oversight the most?

Most food research is funded by food companies - where is the neutrality necessary in real science? The movie shows some "experts" unabashedly trying to convince Congress and various committees that ketchup or French fries should count as a vegetable or that sodas can easily be a part of a healthy, balanced diet. Have we totally lost our minds??? How are these people even allowed to speak publicly and their opinions considered as anything short of ludicrous? (Well, I guess we have freedom of speech. Oops.)

Dubious scientific technologies are used to adulterate our food even more. When you have to involve scientists and chemists to figure out how to modify natural foods to make them more  palatable, and ADDICTIVE to humans, and what chemical substances need to be used to accomplish this, we have a problem. A huge problem.

I am a huge fan of modern technology, but I have always believed that when it comes to food it's not so smart to fool with Mother Nature. And why would we? Seems we always get it wrong in this regard. We can't outsmart her, as much as we try. When it comes to our food supply, there is something about the inherent wisdom of nature that no inventions will probably ever be able to improve upon. At least without the negative effect on human health. (And this is coming from a daughter of a scientist whose research gave the beginning to stem cells and cloning, and which I whole-heartedly support. So you know I am not against progress done right, as long as it is done with due respect to human health).

We, as a nation, have let others take over our food supply. We have let food giants control our taste buds and our brains. We have been putting money in the pockets of food corporations and their profit-hungry executives by eating out all the time, and eating cheap, bad quality food. We have given up buying fresh food and supporting our farmers, cooking family meals made from real whole foods, and helping the earth do what it does best - feeding us with its natural bounty.

So instead of blaming everybody else (and I am NOT defending food companies here - far from it!) maybe we should finally look at what part WE ourselves actually play in this whole scenario? What is OUR role in this? How much are WE contributing to the problem?

Maybe we could make an effort to get to the farmers market once or twice a week and buy some healthy produce that actually tastes like food? Maybe we could try to cook at home a few times a week, and involve our kids in the process to teach them the importance of cooking with whole foods? Maybe we could actually teach kids to eat adult real food? It's a complete fallacy that kids need "kid food". No country in the world has ever come up with something so stupid. Kids should be taught to eat everything when they are young so their taste buds are accustomed to normal foods instead of processed junk loaded with sugar. Maybe we should insist on nutrition education in schools early on (done by REAL nutritionists) so kids would acquire this much necessary knowledge early on? Maybe we should seek out restaurants that are committed to sustainable cooking by buying local foods and supporting local farmers in the process? Maybe we should support organic grocery markets that are trying to make a change? Maybe we should sign petitions to tell our politicians what we really think?


But will we??? What does it take for us to understand that we are destroying the planet, destroying our health and that of our kids, while at the same time contributing to the plush lifestyles of those few we so love to hate? Wake up America! You always think you are so great. But, for the most part, you' re only good at talking. We need action, not talk, so do something, however small, to make a difference. Don't be afraid to stand out from the crowd and be unpopular.

Others will join you. That's how big changes start. So get out there and buy fresh, natural food instead of sugar and junk leaden crap that doesn't even resemble food. JUST EAT REAL FOOD!!!
It's that simple. Vote for better food with your money. Make your voice heard. YOU DO HAVE A CHOICE.  MAKE THE RIGHT ONE.  And yes, I am talking to YOU!

To learn what you can do to help, please visit the "Fed Up" movie Take Action page at: