With “Fed Up” the sugar industry has become the new Big Tobacco: Elaine Chin

Hidden in most foods we eat, sugar is actually more insidious than most addictive substances


Reviews of the movie Fed Up (showing in select theatres right now) generally describe it as a film about the obesity epidemic. To me, it seems sugar is still getting a pass. This isn’t just about obesity—it’s about life and death! Too much of the wrong types of sugars will kill. That’s what people should take away from Fed Up.

Sugar is why we are getting fat and why we’re dying before our time. And that’s why I recommend everyone watch Fed Up—the film the food industry doesn’t want you to see.

I was fortunate to be one of the first in Canada to see Fed Up at a private screening held by Heather Reisman of Indigo who was one of the executive producers of the movie. I immediately booked dozens of seats for its official Canadian premiere at Hot Docs for my friends. The universal response was what Heather predicted: “We will eat differently.”

Sugar, obesity and the scary fact that this generation of children is expected to be the first to die before their parents is not a new story. It’s one I’ve been telling for years. My hope is that when people see this story on film, my warnings about sugar will start to sink in.

Think “sugar kills” is an overstatement? Would you agree that heroin can kill? Consider this: sugar is as addictive as heroin, and equally as dangerous.

“Your brain lights up to sugar just as it does with cocaine and heroin, meaning you are going to become an addict,” says University of California pediatrics professor Dr. Robert Lustig in Fed Up.

And sugar is even more insidious, since addicts choose to start shooting heroin (see the Homer Simpson short cameo in Fed Up shooting up liquefied donuts), while sugar is hidden in many foods we eat. So we can get hooked, unknowingly. Researchers quoted in the film say that, of 600,000 food items in the US, a staggering 80% have added sugar.

The film also points out how lousy we can be made to feel about being overweight. I’ll let you in on a secret—you don’t have to shoulder all the blame for extra pounds. Fed Up maintains the real danger behind the epidemic is sugar.

When we say epidemic, what does that mean?

  • By 2040, up to 70% of 40-year-old Canadians will be either overweight or obese.
  • Today, nearly 9 million Canadians—1 in 4—either has diabetes or pre-diabetes. More than 20 people are diagnosed with the disease every hour of every day. 700,000 are undiagnosed.
  • 59% of adult Canadians are either overweight or obese.
  • By 2050, one third of all Americans will have diabetes.

Do you really know how much sugar you are consuming?

One 20-ounce bottle of regular soda or energy drink contains 275 calories and 68 to 75 grams of sugar (1 teaspoon of sugar has approximately 4-5 grams of sugar). Yes doing that math you are ingesting 12 to 15 teaspoons of sugar—twice the daily amount recommended for an adolescent boy. (If you look at your food labels, you will find no percentage recommended sugar intake, whereas it is noted for salt. Odd, isn’t it?)

How can you tell if a product has added sugar in it? Read all the ingredients on the Nutritional Facts label. And if it doesn’t say sugar on it, make sure you check for its other 56 names. Surprised? Click here for a list of those other names. Or check out this Instagram infographic provided by FedUp.

Watch Fed Up, playing in theatres in major Canadian cities now (find a theatre here), and you may never eat the same way again. I sincerely hope you don’t. If you don’t have a chance to watch the movie, start by reading Kate Lunau’s current cover story in Maclean’s: Death By Sugar.

Elaine Chin, MD, MBA
Founder, Executive Health Centre

Get our daily briefing on innovation, leadership, technology & the economy.
Weekdays at 6 AM ET. Learn More »

5 comments on “With “Fed Up” the sugar industry has become the new Big Tobacco: Elaine Chin

  1. While I agree with the overall direction of your argument, there are two things that are going to result in our kids, on average, dying younger than us: over-consumption and under-exertion. Blaming sugar as the sole cause is hyperbolic, especially when comparing sugar to heroin and when claiming there are 56 “names” for sugar – – the list and infographic shows that about half of those supposedly separate names contain the word “sugar” paired with some other modifier; I don’t think anyone reading the ingredient “golden sugar” is confused over whether it’s sugar (a better case can be made for the various permutations of “sodium”). As a kid of the 70s and 80s, most of my cohort ate as much chocolate and cookies as we could find; birthday cake with ice cream and Kool-Aid were the norm, and yet there were very, very few overweight kids (and almost zero morbidly obese kids) in my schools. Why? We were active and outside riding bikes and playing. Park the video games and screen time and the crisis will be ended.

    • Thanks for your comment – and I do agree that sugar is not the only reason for fat kids. Having said that they are eating more sugar now that when you did because of the added sugars in processed foods. Remember 60% of our adult population is now overweight or obese and that diabetes is now our #1 issue for the health care system.
      Elaine Chin MD

  2. I have recently been starting to avoid sugar if I can (I love sugar like a heroin addict) and you really need to read labels these days. The big companies put it in everything because it extends shelf life. But this is not the sugar we used to eat in the 70’s and 80’s (as Elaine describes). They are using High Fructose Corn syrup now because it’s cheaper and extends shelf life. But HFCS is not good sugar – it messes with your body’s response. I totally agree we also need to bring the activity levels up but we are being fooled by the people who make the food we eat today that it is safe for us in the name of profit. We need to be conscious about what we put in our bodies and what we feed our children – it’s ultimately our choice. Eat organic as much as you can (or grow your own vegetables and fruit) and avoid packaged foods and most of the ailes in the grocery store.

  3. Yep, good comments here folks. Agree with you all on the fact that there’s more to it. I’ve seen the Fed Up trailer only, and while I find the whole sugar-industry-is-the-new-mafia thing interesting and definitely plausible, we actually do get to choose what we eat. Processed foods have had compete shit in them since their inception; cheese whiz, wonder bread, candy of every kind, pop, Doritos, McDonald’s, etc. It’s not any more surprising now than it was when I was a kid [80s]. And the fact that bottled, canned, boxed, pre-made, frozen, etc. foods have added sugar is – yet again – not a new thing. I agree that there could be a mandate for government involvement and the reduction of added sugar everywhere. But hello, vegetables, fruit, eggs [not dairy], meat, fish, some decent grains, good oils – it’s not that hard. And it doesn’t have to be organic. Just real, actual food. Did anyone mention that North Americans eat an inordinate amount of bread/wheat, rice, corn, pasta, pastry, potatoes, beer [and other alcohol], and grain related products – all of which convert to sugar in the body when metabolized? One of the first things a doctor will prescribe overweight or pre-diabetic people is a diet akin to South Beach or Paleo; one that reduces not only intake of raw sugar, but foods that convert to sugar when metabolized. It’s a larger issue than just removing or controlling sugar in society. Exercise is a factor, obviously. Choice is another [for kids, that clearly means the parents]. Money can be a factor, yet fruit, vegetables, eggs and many types of meat are actually far cheaper than packaged/processed foods. It means you have to cook more, but still – watch a youtube video. It’s not that hard. I am certainly not disagreeing with the fact that obesity and diabetes is now nearly epidemic, nor to say that I have the answers. Just a couple two cents to contribute.