Food for thought

Stars talk about healthy eating at MoMA premiere of Fed Up

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Katie Couric shares a laugh at the Fed Up MoMA premiere with fellow US journalist Savannah Guthrie, who is expecting:
Katie Couric shares a laugh at the Fed Up MoMA premiere with fellow US journalist Savannah Guthrie, who is expecting: "I'm pregnant now, and that is a huge perspective changer in terms of what you put in your body" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At the Museum of Modern Art, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with Claire Danes, Liv Tyler, Savannah Guthrie, Mariska Hargitay, Matt Lauer, Debra Messing and Martha Stewart hosted the New York premiere screening of Stephanie Soechtig's vital documentary Fed Up. The RADiUS – TWC’s film, co-executive produced by Academy Award winner Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth) with narrator Katie Couric, could change the way you eat - and most likely, it should.

Among those who joined the hosts to show their support were Theory designer Olivier Theyskens, Shep Gordon, Jodi Applegate, Adrian Grenier, Jon Cryer, Chuck Scarborough, Bridget Moynahan, Naomi Wolf, Dr Nicole Avena, Maggie Valentine and her family. The screening was followed by a sugar-free supper at Venus over Manhattan with the after party menu inspired by Laurie David’s cookbook The Family Cooks.

Fed Up shows how we are in the middle of one of the biggest health epidemics of our time. While uncovering misinformation tactics and distraction campaigns, the film follows a group of four children fighting tough battles with their weight and health. "Only 30 per cent of people suffering from diet-related diseases are actually obese," the filmmakers state, and point to the fact that, in 1980, Type 2 diabetes was nonexistent in children. The numbers have sky-rocketed ever since and will lead to enormous complications in the future.

On the red carpet before the screening at MoMA -

Adrian Grenier:
Adrian Grenier: "I drank a lot more water, cut down on alcohol and I eliminated sugar" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anne-Katrin Titze: Fed Up really tries to lift the deliberately placed veil on what America eats. Has there been any recent discovery on your part that changed the way you eat?

Adrian Grenier: You need a good balance. A lot of times when you're overworked and stressed, you've got to be really careful. Food can help reduce stress and allow you to actually do more work. I was in a particularly stressful time in my life and I really had to adjust my diet to make sure food was helping me and aiding me so that I didn't get sick. When you're stressed out, your immune system is compromised.

AKT: Did you add foods to your diet? Did you get rid of stuff?

AG: I drank a lot more water, cut down on alcohol and I eliminated sugar.

AKT: Sugar is a large issue in the film. Have you seen it yet?

AG: I haven't. I'm looking forward to it. Oh, and coffee. I stopped drinking coffee.

AKT: Fed Up is about changing attitudes towards food. Have there been any recent realizations on your part about food?

Savannah Guthrie: First of all I am looking forward to seeing the movie tonight because I think it's an education for everyone, including and especially me. I'm somebody who probably needs to get more educated about the food that I consume without even thinking about. I'm excited to see the film for that reason. I'm pregnant now, and that is a huge perspective changer in terms of what you put in your body. You immediately learn the things that you shouldn't have when you're pregnant. But more than that, you know you're feeding a little human being and you want them to get started off on the very best foot.

So I'm consciously trying to eat more fruit and vegetables. Absolutely trying to have more of a balanced diet, thinking a lot more about nutrition as opposed to hunger. I'm not perfect, I still don't have perfect eating habits but I have become a lot more mindful and I hope the movie makes me all the more so.

Katie Couric introduced the evening before the screening in MoMA's Titus One theatre with former mayor and healthy food advocate Michael Bloomberg

Former Mayor Bloomberg at MoMA's Titus One theater introduction of Fed Up:
Former Mayor Bloomberg at MoMA's Titus One theater introduction of Fed Up: "The film has all of the ingredients of a blockbuster" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Michael Bloomberg: Not only has Fed Up received rave reviews but premiering at MoMA means the documentary already is at the level of masterpiece. The film has all of the ingredients of a blockbuster - a fantastic director, an Oscar-winning producer [Laurie David], one of the most trusted journalists [Katie Couric] in America as its narrator and an amazing, handsome and dynamic interview subject like me. The film really does take on such an important issue, a matter of life and death, actually. And it's one that we can and must do something about. That's why our foundation has made public health a priority, including our efforts to fund obesity research and prevention.

After the screening at MoMA we gathered at Venus Over Manhattan for a delicious supper sponsored by Aloha and I had a chance to speak national security and cheese with Fed Up director Stephanie Soechtig.

AKT: What surprised you the most when you were making your film?

Stephanie Soechtig: The effect on our national security. We're having trouble enlisting soldiers because our kids are too fat to go. That really surprised me, just that the consequences are so far-reaching.

AKT: There are so many revelations in the film and everybody I am talking to tonight mentions another detail. I just spoke to Olivier Theyskens and he said that although he looks at the grams of sugar on the labels, he never realised before that the suggested percentages for sugar are never listed. The same is true for me. I had no idea.

Fed Up director Stephanie Soechtig:
Fed Up director Stephanie Soechtig: "We want this film shown in every school across the country" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
SS: I didn't either! What's so funny is that I actually was relatively far along in making the film when I attended a dinner with Dr Lustig and that fact came up. And I thought, oh my gosh, a year into making the film and I still didn't know that.

AKT: Another point is the history and decline of the school lunch.

SS: School lunches are criminal. I went into Maggie's [Valentine] school and they had a slushy machine. Like 7-Eleven with books - it's unbelievable. I had no idea. When I was in high school, school lunch was always kind of gross but it wasn't like a fast-food market the way it is now, where you can buy sodas and candy bars. It was shocking. Right towards the end of our making the film, some of the changes the Obama administration made started to become implemented, so a lot of the fast food has been taken out of schools. So that's a great thing.

AKT: Have you reached out to schools to show your film there?

SS: We want this film shown in every school across the country. That is our goal. That would be the indication that we were successful.

AKT: You told me you grew up speaking Swiss-German and English. There is a big chapter about cheese in the film.

SS: You know that we're not criticizing cheese. The point is to show the USDA's dual mission. They say one thing and they do the opposite.

Katie Couric and Maggie Valentine, who is featured in Fed Up:
Katie Couric and Maggie Valentine, who is featured in Fed Up: "The fact that the political system and the food industry have been in cahoots for thirty plus years…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Maggie Valentine, one of the children in the film comes over.

AKT: You are very brave to speak so honestly in the film. You're doing a great thing for the people watching.

SS: Isn't she amazing? The kids are the heroes because they show us, they are the faces, they personify what's really going on in this country.

AKT: How do you feel tonight, Maggie?

Maggie Valentine: I feel amazing.

At the after party, I also got the chance to talk with Katie Couric.

Parents and children have to start decoding what one interviewee calls "the world's deadliest diet". Soechtig's film is a great help in debunking myths about the price of real food versus junk or the strategies of targeting young children.

AKT: What was the greatest surprise for you in making this film?

Katie Couric: The fact that the political system and the food industry have been in cahoots for 30-plus years to the detriment of public health. It was maddening for me to realise just how hard it would get to get things done and how powerful they are, both in terms of private citizens and then on public service.

AKT: On the other hand, there is the success story in terms of smoking and the tobacco industry. That makes it a little more hopeful.

KC: I think it may take decades to change attitudes but I think you're right. I think it's possible. There is so much that I learned, they did such an amazing job.

Olivier Theyskens, whom I chatted with at the luncheon for Amma Asante's Belle last month, was also full of praise for Fed Up and his own mother's ban on chips and junk food when he was growing up in Belgium. "It makes me so grateful about my mother's cooking," he said and recommended for me to also watch the HBO series The Weight Of The Nation as a companion piece.

Liv Tyler on the red carpet at MoMA for Fed Up
Liv Tyler on the red carpet at MoMA for Fed Up Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Dr Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist specialising in obesity research was an advisor on the film.

AKT: How did you get involved in being Fed Up?

Dr Nicole Avena: I started doing research on whether or not sugar can be addictive back when I was in graduate school at Princeton. It goes all the way back to 2001. I've been publishing papers and doing experiments looking at rats. We found evidence that rats show signs of changes in the brain that you would see with addiction to drugs and abuse but we were just giving the rats sugar to drink.

So it set forth this whole area of research to really understand if the highly processed foods could in fact be hijacking the brain in ways that were similar to addiction. We did a series of studies and published over 50 papers on this very question. We're finding that not only can changes in the brain occur in response to eating sugar that are what you see with an addiction. Feelings of lethargy, distress and not feeling well - what the children are talking about in the film when they try to eat healthily, are aspects of what happens during withdrawal from drug abuse.

AKT: I just spoke to your husband and he told me that in his police work in New Jersey, school violence is one of his greatest concerns. Fed Up shows the dismal state of food in the schools. Do you see a connection there?

NA: It is really something that should be taken more seriously. We have a small child and he is in school now and it really opened our eyes when we started to see what was offered at the schools. If the children are left to their own devices, of course they're going to pick ice cream. We need to have some more structure to help them learn about ways they can implement the healthy lunchtime meal alternatives. We know we're affecting their brains, we're affecting their behavior and we're really just setting our kids up for a lifetime of trouble with food if we don't intervene.

AKT: What is so disgraceful is that manufacturers and the players of the food industry know exactly what they're doing.

Fed Up co-executive producer Laurie David
Fed Up co-executive producer Laurie David Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
NA: What I'm hoping the film will do is educate people. Bringing this research that's out there to the masses. So that people out there realise when you see something that is low fat it might have twice as much sugar in it. Or, if you see something that's marketed as being a "healthy alternative" or a healthy granola bar - well, if it has seven teaspoons of sugar in it, you're better off having something else. I really hope the film will inspire people to make those changes. Tobacco was a socially acceptable drug to use.

If we were here 20 years ago, everybody would be smoking and think it's no big deal. Things have really changed and I think what worked for tobacco might work for sugar as well. Not having every single birthday party celebrated by a cupcake that weighs a half a pound for every single child. Over time it will add up if we change the culture of our food. I often speak about second hand smoke as being a killer. I think second-hand sugar is a killer - sugar your kids are getting at school that you don't even know about.

Fed Up opens in the US on May 9.

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