On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Leave a comment


  1. WOW!! I didn’t get through tho whole video yet(I watched The Bitter truth)I’ll go back to it.
    I already knew how bad sugar is but this just reinforced it for me. However I was thinking more about obesity I didn’t realize just how bad it is for the health of the body.
    I’m like you in that I don’t eat a lot of sugar, but I do love my homemade jam and my dried fruits. I shall have to reassess my diet. Thanks for this info.

  2. What about honey? Will you continue to harvest the honey from your beehives? Just curious.

    • You know, we rarely harvest from our hives — over time our relationship to the bees has changed from a harvesting mentality to that of hosts. We basically only take honey when we have to, to make room in the box. Lately with the drought the bees need everything they make.

      As far as honey goes as a sugar, it’s a sugar like any other under Lustig’s definitions. I personally think it’s an interesting sugar with potential health benefits (allergies etc) so would prefer it to white sugar for sweetening.

      At any rate, we have a quart of honey in the cupboard and plan to use it sparingly in tea, etc. — so it should last a long time.

  3. OK as a diabetic with a background in nutrition I know how bad sugar can be. When I shop I look at both the carbohydrate value and the sugar. I know that I can consume no more than 20g of carbs per meal (carbs minus fiber) and since I control my diabetes by diet and exercise I’m rather fanatical about it. One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams.
    So, one tablespoon of Smucker’s Strawberry Jam has 12g or 3 teaspoons of sugar; 1/2 c. orange juice has 10g or 2 1/2 teaspoons of sugar; Silk Almondmilk Protein + Fiber has 9g or almost 2 teaspoons of sugar per cup but Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk has less than 1 g. Pepperidge Farm Cinnamon Swirl bread has 4g or 1 teaspoon of sugar per slice and Arnold’s Health-full bread has 2g or 1/2 teaspoon sugar. See where I’m going with this?
    A woman should limit her sugar intake to 6 tsp per day: 1/2 c. OJ, 1 tbsp jam, 1 slice Arnold’s Healthful bread and you have 7 1/2 teaspoons of sugar by the time you eat breakfast and doesn’t allow you any sugar in your coffee or any other foods, mainly processed whole fruits are much better, for the rest of the day.
    Personally after following my strict diet for almost 4 years I can tell when something has a lot of added sugar. The carb count of 9 g for 1 cup of the Almondmilk Protein + Fiber looked OK, but the added sugar, the second ingredient, made my blood sugar shoot straight up to a level I haven’t seen for about 3 years. And that scared me. Luckily it only took me 12 hours to get my blood sugars back under control but that Almondmilk was dumped down the drain.
    For fun and your personal information try adding up all the sugar in your daily diet and I’m sure everyone will be amazed.

  4. I had a similar wake-up to the effects of sugar about 3 years ago. I followed the 21 Day Sugar Detox and it was mind-blowing! The program has 3 phases to follow which you can choose based on your level of commitment to the program and sugar addiction.

    The best thing I learned: everything we eat is either a fat, carb, or protein. If you take away the sugar (carbs), you have to eat more healthy fats and proteins to feel satiated. Do this, and the cravings go away, even during the initial fast/detox phase.

    I highly recommend the 21Day Sugar Detox book!

  5. Whew, I watched the whole thing and was appalled. I have 24 Diet Coke Caffeine Free that call my name, sitting too close for comfort.

    About 30 years ago the checkers in the grocery store told me I bought more raw fruits and vegetables with little to no other food than any customer they had ever had, even families. I lost 46 lbs in three months and rarely was hungry. I need to go back to that place in time. I was even drinking Diet Cokes.

    My friends laughed and teased me that according to Linda, “fiber in raw food cured everything and sugar was evil.” During that time, I had one Hershey bar every day. My “rule” was that I could eat anything I wanted. It was easy when I did not exclude the possibility of any food.

    I need a reset of my mind. This video did it for me.

    As for now, I check all processed foods I buy, so I quit buying any breakfast cereal. Luckily, I like fruits and vegetables.

    This post with the video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, in my opinion, is the single most important post you have ever posted.

    Now that I have wrapped my head around this, I need to wholly embrace it and knock off the sugar and go back to my raw foods before metabolic disease catches up with me. And, I might lose weight!


  6. I eat what is nearly a ‘primal’ diet – no grains, no rice, no potatoes, no sugars, etc. – so I found this interesting. If I want something sweet, I’ll have an apple or a pear. Eating a lot of protein and all the vegetables I want every meal keeps me happy, and I generally drink only water, iced tea (unsweetened) or coffee (black).

    Making wise choices about what you and your family eat? Absolutely. Supporting your local farmers’ market and having a garden or orchard of your own? Definitely. Occasionally celebrating with a slice of birthday cake or a cheeseburger and fries from Five Guys? Of course.

    All that being said, I’m not sure I can support some of your recommendations – especially those that remove freedom of choice from other people. Banning foods from schools or limiting advertising simply removes responsibility from parents and the kids themselves; promoting a lack of familial or personal responsibility is the very slippery slope we are all sliding down right now as a culture.

    • I don’t think this about removing freedom of choice. I think it is more complicated. The issue is about 1) advertising something as healthy when the advertisers know it is not; 2) promoting foodstuffs that are addictive; 3) giving children a “choice” when they are already addicted to and acculturated to a food as normal, good, and right. 4) promoting junk food in the classrooms on TVs; 5)the FDA ignoring facts. 6) It tastes good.

      If limiting advertising and limiting access to tobacco has worked to any degree, then hopefully the same tactics might work for sugar-filled foods.

      I limited my children’s access to sweets. I hid my cookies up high and ate them turned to the sink or sent them out of the room to get a piece of laundry while I stuffed sweets into my mouth. Probably in your opinion, I was not teaching them self-control. Maybe so; maybe not. We did eat junk as a family, but I told them it was not good for their bodies. I thought it was my obligation the tell my children that some things were not so good for their bodies.

      The government does not put warnings on sugars. Food companies put sugar and hfcs in everything with no warning. Families are not always able to access the information that those of us with education, interest, and internet access can find. There are those families that are so overworked that boxed food is really the best they can do with what they have. So, not eating hfcs becomes an elitist issue. Yet, how many educated, informed, and cautious people are fat? Maybe the addictive quality of fugar is the problem. Okay, there is more I could say, but you get the idea.

    • Fed Up draws a direct comparison between the food industry now and the tobacco industry 30 years ago. It’s a powerful lobby with tons of advertising money and it knows very well it is feeding us poison.

      I believe the restrictions on sales and adverting of tobacco served the public health, and I believe that similar tactics may be necessary for food at this point. I don’t believe that denies individual freedom. After all, we can still buy cigarettes and I’m sure we’ll always be able to eat whatever we want. But hopefully we won’t be marketed the crap 24/7 everywhere we turn.

      But I do believe that children need extra protection. They are simply not developmentally mature enough to make healthy choices at school–if their school is even bothering to offer any healthy choices and is not co-branded by Fritos or Coke or something–and are terribly susceptible to advertisers, who have inserted their messages *everywhere*–how can parents defend their children against this onslaught without some help?

      It comes down to the individual and the family in the end, for sure, though. We make choices every time we go to the market, every time we sit down to table. Nothing is more basic than eating.

  7. Only six dried apricots in one sitting? I’m in awe. I can’t stop until I’ve finished off at least five times that, usually more. My name is Susan and I’m an apricoholic.

  8. LOL!!! Ditto, Susan. I don’t know what I’d do if we had the type of climate where they grew easily.

  9. Some colleagues of mine just recently (finally!) published a paper from a huge, ambitious study in mice, where they gave each mouse one of 25 diets containing different levels of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, and tracked feeding and lifespan. It seems to me like Americans really like to cling to stories that single out specific ingredients (see: gluten, sugar). But most foods contain a mixture of things. Evidence from the mouse study and studies in other animals suggest that many animals *jointly* regulate the intake of protein and carbohydrate, but with protein exerting a stronger effect on feelings of satiety – interestingly, the mice didn’t regulate for fat, they just ate whatever amount of fat was packaged along with the protein and carbohydrate. In tracking lifespan, they found that mice given lower-protein, high-carbohydrate diets actually had the longest lifespan and other indicators of better health compared to mice on high-protein foods. They were actually most interested in refuting the “caloric restriction” hypothesis of ageing, which ignores the type of calorie involved. But I think there are broader implications.

    I watched Robert Lustig’s video six months ago, and I do think he makes some important points (plus I learned a lot about the biochemistry of intermediate metabolism from him). However…I’d still go back to this whole idea of vilifying a single ingredient. Americans are all still eating way too much processed food overall, and processed food is the larger culprit, in my book, especially because it’s cheap to add fat, carbohydrates, and salt to processed foods, but expensive to add protein.

    • Hey Rebecca-very interesting. Kelly and I had a long discussion about the issue of vilifying ingredients. You are probably right that sugar is the new gluten. I suppose it’s easier to vilify one thing rather than take a whole systems approach to diet. Is the paper, or at least a summary online somewhere?

    • Yes, as Erik says, we talked about this. No issue as complex as food and eating habits can be distilled down to one simple culprit.

      I’d agree with you that it is about processed foods overall. But Lustig’s sugar take was new to me, and motivating. It may not be all of the problem, but now I understand more of why it’s a problem. Before, I was more of a “all calories are the same” mindset.

    • I’m glad both of you have found this perspective insightful. It’s hard to know how to reshape the conversation on food. Have you seen this article on gluten? I found the writing quality to be uneven, but a number of the perspectives influenced my commentary above.


      Kelly – I do think Lustig’s point about considering the quality of calories is a valuable one, because he’s right – different things get metabolized differently, and so calories aren’t all created equally. My current line of research is focused on understanding how protein-carbohydrate balances and total amounts affect cricket physiology – a goal that’s closely related to the mouse work and ideas about nutrient-processing. So I’m thinking about this stuff quite a lot these days. 🙂

    • Thanks for all this! We’ll check out the Atlantic article. And let us know what the crickets tell you!

  10. I am so glad that you have posted this. I have been attempting to get rid of the sugar from my diet for the past 3 month. I have lost 11 lbs and am feeling so much better. Everyone kept saying that after 2 weeks I would no longer want sugar. HA! Not true! It took a month before I could calm down enough from not getting my afternoon sugar fix. Only now am I starting to feel more in control. But like an alcoholic I can’t have ‘just one.’ I have ‘fallen off the wagon’ over and over but I just keep getting back on and it IS getting easier and those apples, and fruits are tasting SO GOOD. Since I’m not spending money on anything with sugar I have the extra money for organic and they sure taste better! And I am enjoying cooking from scratch. This whole food industry is a big crazy, addicting, unhealthy mess! I agree totally with the movie and the more I read and hear the more determined I am to vote with my wallet. That seems to be the only thing these companies understand. And I will not support the big corps who have bought out the organic, natural brands either. They think they can continue making money by selling those ‘organic’ non GMO products and we won’t know whose pocket the money is going into. Oddly enough this article also came up in today’s mail
    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/05/27/gma-monsanto-gmo-labeling.aspx?e_cid=20140527Z1-15off100_DNL_art_1&utm_source=dnl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art1&utm_campaign=20140527Z1-15off100&et_cid=DM46610&et_rid=532776768 It talks about who has bought out what and who to avoid.

  11. Without question, the most important issue stemming from this post is not the effects of sugar in our diet but rather whether we will — finally! — resist “Them” and take control of our lives, our food, our education, our housing, our communities, our healthcare, our cultural pursuits, and our belief systems.

  12. I gave up sugar and white carbs for April to address some health issues and as part of a kind of mind-body-spirit little rite of passage for my turning 30. i did re-introduce fruit after about 2 weeks as i just felt i wasnt getting the nutrienyts and variety i needed. I re-introduced dried fruits,honey and molasses at just over 3 weeks after a particularly challenging few days with my toddler (who i’m still breastfeeding). I did feel good for the sugar detox and must admit that now i’ve slipped back a little i now feel less good (why do we do what we know is bad for us?!!)
    Thanks for the post. After a few days. thinking about cutting back again, i’ll take this as a strong hint from the universe that i really should do so! Good luck with the rest of your sugar detox. Mo. x

  13. Corporations really are controlling our food choices, which is sad. i jus saw one of those articles showing a week of groceries in different countries, and it is really shocking to see how Americans eat mostly processed food, while people in less developed countries have a much healthier diet, not controlled by corporations.

  14. Hi,

    I am glad that you wrote about this film! It hasn’t arrived in my neck of the woods yet (Montreal, Québec), and I am looking forward to seeing it as soon as it does.

    In connection to your post, the artist Kara Walker’s piece called « A Sublety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Refining Sugar Plant»

    She addresses a whole other bunch of issues involving sugar. You can see it here: creativetime.org/projects/karawalker/

    Her work, along with the health issues connected to sugar, are making me completely rethink my relationship to sugar. And I thought it could last forever!

  15. So my 7 year old nephew tells me you Aunty you shouldnt eat sugar everyday its bad for your body. He goes on to tell me that your body gets sick if you have too much sugar. He then tells me food in packets that you get from the supermarkets has lots of sugar in them and you shouldnt eat these foods all the time but you can have them every now and then.

    This child and his younger siblings still ask for treats but their parents will say “lets check the back of the pack and see whats in them” Then they will say “Im sorry sweetheart this is bad for your body because it has too much sugar, fat, preservatives etc” THEY JUST TELL THE TRUTH. Its that simple if you tell kids the truth about the food they eat most of the time with a little guidance they can work things out for themselves.
    We always look to blame and understandably if you dont have access to a good education and the ability to look things up online or read the back of a pack then perhaps you can blame the food companies.
    But since these companies rely on our demand we can choose not to eat their sugar fat laden supersized unhealthy products.

    I do I now go for quality over quantity and eat fresh whereever I can.
    I make my own bread bake my own treats grow my own herbs and some vegies and work a fulltime job. Its all doable I am not a slave to drudgery its a matter of routine once you get it to a workable level you hardly notice it.
    Best thing is we rarely go to the supermarket anymore other than for sundries.

    • forgot to say that I use coconut sugar for sweetner 2 tablespoons is enough for a batch of oat cookies.
      Or I use fresh pureed apple or grated apple or banana as the sweet element.
      If I want sweet treat Ill have the best dark chocolate I can buy the better the quality the less you need.
      I rarely use dried fruit unless its airdried organic and use these sparingly.

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