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Katie Couric is 'Fed Up' with the food industry's role in health problems

Katie Couric at the New York City press conference for "Fed Up"
Katie Couric at the New York City press conference for "Fed Up"
Carla Hay

Award-winning news journalist Katie Couric is putting her money where her mouth is in the documentary film “Fed Up,” which examines the U.S. health crisis stemming from the food industry’s role in unhealthy eating. Not only is Couric the film's narrator, she is also one of the executive producers of “Fed Up.” Oscar winning “An Inconvenient Truth” producer Laurie David is also a “Fed Up" executive producer. Stephanie Soechtig wrote, directed and produced “Fed Up.” The movie exposes many facts that may shock some viewers, such as food and drinks that many people consider to be “healthy” (such as fat-free yogurt and fruit drinks) are actually unhealthy because many of them are overloaded with sugar.

“Fed Up” also makes a case that the alarming rise of diabetes in America is directly linked to bad eating habits that are encouraged by large and powerful segments of the food industry. The movie dispels the myth that “junk food” is always cheaper and easier to consume. In fact, many nutritious food items actually cost less than “junk food.” A select number of families struggling with obesity are profiled in “Fed Up.” The filmmakers hope that the movie will help start a grass-roots movement for people to making healthier choices in consuming food and drinks. Here is what Couric said at a New York City press conference for “Fed Up.”

Why did you feel it was important to make “Fed Up” a documentary film instead of a series of news reports on TV or the Internet? There must be a lot of footage that you couldn’t put in a movie because of time constraints.

First of all, I think the whole phenomenon of doing a miniseries on an important issue is relatively new. I think Showtime did a miniseries or a multiple-part documentary on global warming with Jim Cameron. I thought it would be interesting to do a documentary [film] because I thought it would be great to take a comprehensive and lengthy book, and I was covering [this food issue] so much on the “Today” show and CBS, but we were doing short stories but never really delving into the root causes of what was going on, in terms of the nation’s health.

Stephanie [Soechtig] had done a documentary called “Tapped,” and I was interviewing her about that. And I thought, “I would love to work on a documentary on obesity in this country and what’s causing it.” And Stephanie said she would call me. She was interested in at least pursuing it and looking into it to see if we could discover some new information about the issue. And then, we reached out to Laurie [David], and Laurie said she was very excited about getting involved in the project. So that’s the genesis of this whole project.

It’s very hard to find a place on television where you could do a 90-minute look at a critically important issue. It’s very rare that you’ll see a one- or two-hour television program that’s focused on an issue like this. So we thought, “Why not do a documentary and see where it takes us?”

Are you concerned about any backlash from advertisers in the food industry because of your involvement in this movie?

I did think about that, to be honest with you. That’s plagued people in the past, in terms of promoting a film or getting involved in an issue. I’m wrapping up a two-year talk show, and I made it clear that I really didn’t want to have advertisers that didn’t feel comfortable with, in terms of promoting certain products. I think at this point in my career, I just sort of felt like it was time to take a stand on some issues.

As a journalist, you have to be so careful about not letting your own personal views leak out. But I felt that this was such an important public-health issue, and I still think there are plenty of sponsors that aren’t related to the kinds of things we’re talking about in this particular film that I thought it would be OK. If I was a journalist just starting out, I’d have more serious reservations, but this is not my first rodeo. I was ready to say that some things are more important than sponsors.

Obesity is one of the health issues in “Fed Up.” Do you think that women feel more pressure than men not to be obese, particularly in your profession?

I think about that a lot, about what a paradoxical society we live in, on so many levels with obesity. As the mother of two daughters — and I’ve struggled with eating issues myself when I was younger — it’s something I’m very aware of. But this is really about overall health. We couldn’t really cover everything in this documentary.

This is about overall health and what we’re doing and what we’re consuming. Even if you’re thin, we talk about TOFI — Thin on the Outside and Fat on the Inside. I think the eating disorders and societal pressures, especially on young girls, is really a whole topic in itself. I think for everyone involved in the film, that wasn’t something we were focusing on.

We talk about health. We’re not talking about adhering to specific societal standards of beauty. We’re talking about health and disease-causing diets that we’re really trying to shine a light on in this film.

What about the areas where there are more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores?

The whole notion of "food deserts," that's a very real problem. But in some ways, I feel like it's a smokescreen. It is a social issue. People who live in low-income areas often don't have the right information or don't understand the important facts so they can make educated choices for themselves and their children.

I kind of feel like that's taking attention away from the core issue, which is that everybody eats, right? And everybody deserves to have the information they need to make smart choices.

"Fed Up" also talks about the increasing number of American children who are obese. What can you say about that issue?

There was a recent study heralded by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] about obesity among 4- to-5-year-olds being on the decline. And it was even on the page of the New York Times. But if you took a closer look at that study, you would have found that days after, some scientists evaluated the material and saw that the sampling was too small. It wasn't really happening.

And yet, everybody was going, "Look, everything is good. It's all fine. We don't have a problem. It's not that serious. It's already being addressed. Whew!"

Unfortunately, it [the study] was just not true. That's what I mean when I was covering this and talking about this on an almost weekly basis, I felt that nobody took the time to unpack the stories and really dig into them and find out what was really happening behind the numbers.

Do you think the health problems caused by diet are also a class issue? Are wealthy people more likely to have access to better choices and information?

Ideally, people who are more affluent have more information, but that doesn’t mean they’re eating in a healthier manner. I think a lot of affluent people are making poor choices and not educated [about diet]. There was so much information I was completely unaware of. I was making terrible food choices for my daughters.

I was buying “low fat” everything because I thought it was healthy. I didn’t realize on the labels that sugar was in grams. I didn’t know that four grams equals one teaspoon. I didn’t know the American Heart Association said that the same amount of sugar for a man is nine teaspoons, and for a woman it’s six teaspoons.

I knew that the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] was in charge of promoting U.S. agriculture and set guidelines, but I never really thought about the inherent conflict of interest that existed in that relationship for that kind of policy. I actually think that there are very educated, successful people who are unaware of this information and continually make bad choices …

I think we’re going to do an educational outreach program. I don’t know all the particulars — and perhaps some of my colleagues know more about this — but I mentor at a school in Harlem. And I can’t tell you how unhealthy I see these kids eat. Many of them, girls in particular, gain a great deal of weight in their early teenage years.

And I’ve talked to the school about looking at their cafeteria, showing the film for all the teachers, students and the parents. I’d love to do a screening at the Apollo Theater where people could come and watch this movie for free.

People need to see this film who won’t necessarily go to a cineplex. I think is such an important component of getting the message. And I think all of us believe so strongly that we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that as many people as possible see this film.

I think we really do want kids to see this because we’ve often talked among ourselves about the fact that when it came to smoking with my mom, my brother and I would flush her cigarettes down the toilet, to try to tell her, “We want you to take care of your health. We don’t want you to smoke.”

We didn’t really know about second-hand smoke at the time. We hope that kids are really going to be empowered by this film and take back their health, because one of the most sobering and tragic statistics is that this generation of children is expected to have a shorter life span than their parents. If that doesn’t motivate parents and children to do something about this issue, to say, “Hey, this is a really unfair legacy that we’re being left,” then I don’t know what is. We really want children to be empowered to do something about the situation and about their health.

What kinds of changes did you make to your diet and food purchases after finding out some of the information about what’s in the food we buy?

I had just graduated from college, and I had just started working in television in the late ‘70s, when the whole “fat free/low fat” craze surfaced. And I remember vividly going to the grocery store and being so excited that there were snack wells and I could eat cookies and it wouldn’t really matter.

That programmed me for most of my adult life to pick “low fat” everything — peanut butter, mayonnaise, you name it. If it said “low fat,” I grabbed it all the time. Why would I want “full fat” if there were “low fat” options? And now I realize, “Yeah, it’s half the fat but twice the sugar.”

So I stopped buying “low fat” things. I’m a big cereal eater. Now, I’m really careful about the cereals I pick. The so-called “healthy” ones are loaded with sugar too. I’m just much more mindful about what I’m eating, what I’m feeding my kids.

There’s no soda in our house. I have to wean myself from artificial sweeteners. Your brain reacts to artificial sweeteners the same way it reacts to all the different kind of sugars that are described in the film. That’s something I do have with my coffee that is hard to get rid of. But we’re all trying to go “no sugar” at some point on May 12 [for the Fed Up Challenge]. I think that will help. But I have definitely changed. I’m more mindful about it. I don’t just grab things.

The other thing I was noticing while I was having breakfast with friends. I said, “Remember when we were little kids, our juice glasses were [small]? And they contained maybe four ounces of juice? When did we start Big Gulp amounts of orange juice?” I did it for a while.

There are so many things: portion size and everything that contribute to this. I am just more aware. And as a result, it’s changing what I buy and what I eat and what I prepare for my kids, even though they’re older and preparing their own foods.

What are some things that people can do on a grass-roots level to change society about making better food choices?

Cooking with your kids is so powerful. And community gardens are so important, at all different kinds of schools. Drew Brees has a school in New Orleans, where he has helped plant a community garden. You can do it anywhere. It really helps kids to eat what they grow and have a greater appreciation. It’s almost like if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. If you can’t see the healthy options, you’re not going to want them.

The kids that I work with in Harlem, I remember I took them before Mother’s Day to the Union Square Farmer’s Market. They had never seen mushrooms or asparagus. One girl who was 10 years old had never eaten a raw carrot in her life.

If more parents, teachers and hopefully entire communities see this film, they’ll start talking about these things. They’ll want to expose their children to more food options. The community gardens are fantastic. And I think we should do all we can to support those.

What about making changes to some of the powerful institutions that have financial reasons to keep junk food as a thriving business?

I think you’re referring to the macro policy issues, like marketing to kids and the fact that the USDA has a conflict of interest. That’s going to be a tougher nut to crack, obviously. But since I think there are options, both macro and microcosmically, we can make changes in our own homes.

One of the things that I think is most heartening about the world today is that when there’s so much mistrust of institutions, like government, financial institutions and the media, you see all these grass-roots movements — people coming together, a la Margaret Mead, and really joining forces and trying to change public policy and change the way the world operates.

And maybe this [movie] will be a “bottom up” approach. People will see it, they’ll make changes in their daily lives, they’ll get angry about that we’re swimming upstream when it comes to so many of these issues, and then try to motivate their elected officials to do something about it.

For more info: "Fed Up" website

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