The new movie, FED UP, out May 9th, finally tells the truth about food and childhood obesity. It is the movie we have been waiting for. It will change how we think and act forever about this problem. It is a powerful indictment of how the food industry hooks us on addicted processed foods laden with hidden sugars. It is story told through the eyes of four obese children, through the insights of leaders in the food movement including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, David Ludwig, Harvey Karp, David Kessler, Gary Taubes, Robert Lustig, President Bill Clinton and me! And through a scathing history of how the food industry has influenced policy, marketing and behavior. Watch the trailer if you haven’t seen it.
The movie is coming out not a day to soon. This week a new study came out showing a 30 percent increase in type 2 diabetes in children since 2001. This is completely preventable, and it is criminal. Now one in four teenagers has pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes and one in 10 kids has a fatty liver and many have cirrhosis from drinking soda and eating sugar. When I was in medical school in the 1980’s there was not a single case of type 2 diabetes in a child. We called it adult onset diabetes then.
There is a Solution: It’s Your Fork!
Last spring, I flew to Greenville, South Carolina to meet with the a family of five who was in the movie to talk to them about their health and understand the roots of their family crisis of morbid obesity, pre-diabetes, renal failure, disability, financial stress and hopelessness about how they could dig themselves of their scary downward spiral, a spiral that is affecting over 150 million Americans (including tens of millions of children) struggling with the physical, social and financial burden of obesity and its complications.
I thought that perhaps in knowing one family intimately I could understand how we might find a way of this slow motion disaster, a threat to the security of our families and our nation far greater than Al Quaeda or terrorism.
What I learned was this: we have to cook our way out of this mess.
Food Terrorism: Our Biggest Threat
The threat is food terrorism – the wholesale hijacking of our health, our palettes, our brain chemistry, our kitchens, homes, and wallets by Big Food. There has been a takeover of our government by the $1 trillion food industry lobbyists (the average Congressman spends five hours a day pandering to Big Food and other corporate lobbyists to raise money to stay in power), which leads to policies that support the production, sale and promotion of disease causing hyper-processed industrial factory made Frankenfoods.
Why should the USDA pay $4 billion a year to soda makers by allowing food stamps to be used to purchase sodas? Our government serves up 29 million servings a day, over 10 billion serving a year of soda to our poor. So much for the food stamp mission of “good food for hungry people”!
Government agricultural subsidies, food programs (WIC – Women, Infant and Children nutrition, school lunch, SNAP or Food Stamps, etc.), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) policies (approving HFCS and artificial sweeteners as GRAS), and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) policies (allowing $30 billion of junk food marketing mostly to kids), directly results in our obesity and chronic disease burden.
Programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign are a step in the right direction, but even she has been coopted by the food industry. They pounced on her and got to partner with them and announce a “huge” initiative that would take 1.5 trillion calories out of the food supply. Sounds great right? But they agreed to do this by making an Oreo cookie 90 instead of 100 calories or cutting 10 calories out of Pop Tarts. Junk isn’t any less junky because they take a couple of calories out. It is still addictive and metabolism disrupting.
The costs are staggering – by 2040 100 percent of our federal budget will be needed to pay for Medicare and Medicaid, our federal debt soars, our kids are sicker leading to an achievement gap that limits our capacity to compete in the global marketplace, and 70 percent of our kids are too fat or unfit to fight, threatening our national security. These are not small problems. They threaten our future, not just those fat and sick among us, but all of us.
A Visit to a Food Desert: Rescue Mission on One Kitchen
So with this in mind, I traveled to the South – the epicenter of our obesity and diabetes crisis. If I understood the obstacles to turning this tide of obesity for just one family, then maybe, just maybe, it would help me understand what might be the key to ending this madness. I went to help with a new documentary on childhood obesity with Laurie David and Katie Couric called Fed Up, which I hope will be the Inconvenient Truth about childhood obesity.
Pickens County, South Carolina, where the family I visited lives is a food desert, not just because there are almost 10 times as many fast food and convenience stores as supermarkets, but their kitchen is a food desert with barely a morsel of real food. There are no ingredients to make real food, only pre-made factory science projects with unpronounceable, unrecognizable ingredient lists. Until you look at the glossy pictures on the front of the packages there would be no way to know if it was a Pizza Stuffer, Pop Tart, Cool Whip, a corn dog or Hamburger Helper. They all contain the same processed ingredients – high fructose corn syrup, flour, salt, hydrogenated fats, MSG, colors, additives and preservatives – all squeezed into injected molded inventions of different colors shapes and textures, but all containing nearly the same ingredient list.
A government health survey of South Carolina, found that 90% of people don’t get enough exercise, 92% don’t eat more than 2 vegetables a day (which includes fries and ketchup), and 33% had at least one soda a day.
And so it was with the family I visited, the mother, father and their 16 year old son were all morbidly obese. The son was 47% body fat and his belly was 58% fat. He said he was worried he would soon be 100% body fat. His insulin levels were sky high, which drives his relentless sugar cravings, food addiction and promotes storage of more and more belly fat. Being obese at 16, his life expectancy is 13 years less than thin kids and he is twice as likely to die by the age of 55 years old as his thin friends. His father at 42 had renal failure from complications of his obesity. The whole family was at risk. The mother had high blood pressure.
They desperately wanted to find a way out, but didn’t have the knowledge or skills to escape from the food terrorists. They blamed themselves their failure, but it was clear they were not the perpetrators, but the victims. When I asked them what motivated them to change, the tears started to flow and John said he didn’t want to die and leave his wife and four boys. Their youngest was only 7 years old. The father couldn’t get a kidney transplant to save his life until he lost 40 pounds and he had no clue how to lose the weight. He was trapped in a food desert in the cycle of food addiction.
When science has proven that processed food, and especially sugar are addictive, it changes the conversation. When your brain is on drugs, willpower and personal responsibility are a fiction.
Cooking Our Way Out of Obesity and Disease
None of them knew how to cook real food. They didn’t know how to navigate a grocery aisle, shop for real food, or read a label. They have been hoodwinked by the “health claims” that made them fat and sick including “low fat”, “diet”, “zero trans fats”, or “whole grain”.
Whole grain pop tarts? Zero trans fats in Cool Whip? It is 100 percent trans fat, but since the serving size is small, and the food lobby forced Congress permit them to label the “food” as having zero trans fat if it has less than 2 grams per serving, they can legally lie. The family didn’t know that chicken nuggets have 25 or more ingredients, and only one of them is chicken. It is a chicken like substance.
They grew up in homes where things were either fried or eaten out of a box or can. They made only two vegetables — boiled cabbage and canned green beans. They didn’t have basic cooking implements, such as proper cutting boards to cut vegetables or even meat. They had some old dull knives they never used hidden under the cupboard. Everything they ate was pre-made in factory. The lived on food stamps, spent about $1000 a month on food, half of it eating out in fast food places. Eating out was their family sport.
The grandmother had a garden, but she never taught her children how to grow food, even though they live in a beautiful, temperate rural area. The mother didn’t know how to chop a vegetable, or sauté it. She knew grilled chicken is healthy but says she can’t feed her family that seven days a week.
The Cure is in the Kitchen: A Doctor’s Recipe for Health
So after much thought, as a doctor, I realized the best way I could help them was not to shame or judge them, not to prescribe more medication or tell them to eat less and exercise more (a subtle way of blaming them), but was to teach them to cook real food from scratch, good food on a tight budget, showing them they could eat well for less.
I got the whole family cooking, washing, peeling, chopping, cutting touching real food – onions, garlic, carrots, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, even asparagus. And the mother to my surprise, pulled out a bunch of fresh asparagus from her fridge (which I suspect she got knowing I was coming to their home) and told me how she hated asparagus. “Once I had asparagus out of can, it was nasty,” she said. “But then a friend told me to try one off the grill, and even thought I didn’t want to, I tried it and it was good.”
My theory about vegetables is this: if you hate them you never had them prepared properly. They were canned, overcooked, boiled, deep-fried or highly processed and tasteless mush. Just think of overcooked Brussel sprouts or mushy canned green beans.
I showed the mother and the kids how to peel garlic, cut onions and how to snap asparagus to get rid of the chewy parts. I taught her to sauté them in olive oil and garlic, to roast sweet potatoes with fennel and olive oil, and to make turkey chili from scratch. We even made fresh salad dressing from olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, instead of high fructose corn syrup infused, refined oil, MSG laden gummy bottled dressings.
The little boys came running into the kitchen, lured away from their X-Box by the sweet warm smells of chili and roasting sweet potatoes in the oven, smells they had never had in their kitchen. They all ate the food, and were surprised at how delicious and filling it was.
After a happy filling, healing meal of real food, cooked in less time and for less money than it would take for them to drive to Denny’s and order deep fried chicken nuggets, biscuits, gravy and canned green beans. The son, the morbidly obese, nearly “super obese” teenager with a body mass index of almost 40, struggled to get healthy against all odds, and wanted to go to medical school, and wanted to help his family, said to me in disbelief, “Dr. Hyman, do you eat real food like this with your family every night?” I assured him I did.
I left to go home amidst tears of relief, of hope of a different future for their family. I wish I had time to take them shopping, to show them how to navigate a supermarket, to teach them to plant a simple garden in their backyard, to take back their health.
Eating and Cooking Well for Less
I left them with my cookbook, The Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook, and a guide from the Environmental Working Group called “Good Food on a Tight Budget” about how to shop and cook and eat real food for less. Five days later, the mother, texted me that the family has lost 18 pounds and was making chili again from scratch.
We can end this mess one kitchen at a time, one meal at a time.
After twelve months, the mother lost 100 pounds and got of her blood pressure medication, the father lost 45 pounds and finally was able to get a kidney transplant, and the son lost 40 pounds, but stuck in a toxic food environment at school, and only able to get a job at Bojangles he gained much of it back, but is working on getting back on track.
Time and money are the biggest perceived obstacles to eating well. Neither is real. We have bought into the insidious marketing messages – “you deserve a break today”. Give me a break!
Americans spent 8 hours a day in front of a screen. We spend 2 hours a day on the Internet, something we somehow found time for, that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. What is missing is the education, the basic skills, the knowledge and the confidence. When you don’t know what to buy, or how to cook a vegetable, how can you feed yourself or your family? The family from South Carolina taught me that it is not lack of desire, but the prison of food addiction and food terrorism that holds them hostage. But there is a way out, a navy seal raid on our captive millions.
Michael Pollan’s recent book, Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation, brilliantly lays down the argument that we have to cook our way out of our health care, environmental and financial crisis, that cooking is essentially a political act, or as I have said cooking is a revolutionary act. His new book beautifully reacquaints us the essential act of cooking, the unique act which makes us human, but which we have abdicated to the food industry. We have, he argues, become food consumers, not food producers or makers, and in so doing we have lost our connection to ourselves and our world.
He says, “the decline of everyday home cooking doesn’t only damage the health of our bodies and our land but also our families, our communities and our sense of how our eating connects us to the world.”
Cooked is a beautiful mediation on cooking and the use of fire, air, water and earth – the ancient skills we have lost of food preparation. But the subtext is that cooking is fun, freeing, and the most essential and real activity we can do every day.
And as a physician, and one deeply concerned about our fat and sick nation, about my children’s and your children’s future, the best medicine for this ailment is something so simple, so easy, so healing, so affordable and accessible to almost everyone and revolutionary is this: cooking REAL FOOD, in the HOME with your family and friends.
I dream one day of creating a national Eat In day, where millions participate, like the one I just celebrated with few thousand from my online community, a day where we all cook, share and eat real whole food, made from scratch with family and friends. Simple, but revolutionary.
Watch the Movie & Do the Fed Up Challenge
Please watch FED UP, bring 10 people to the movie, bring it to your schools and communities and let’s start to tell the truth about how the food industry has taken our children hostage, that food terrorism is at the root of our current health, and economic crisis and learn how we can take back our health.
We want America to do the FED UP CHALLENGE and go sugar free for 10 days start May 12th.
There are great resources to do this including my new book on the science of food addiction and how to medically detoxify from sugar, The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. It also includes game changing strategies for you to get involved and change the food landscape in America and help our children and our nation get healthy again! And be sure to check out the radical delicious new cookbook by Laurie David, The Family Cooks to learn how to take back your kitchen.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD