Friday, 8 May 2009

Fat Head the Movie: Flawed but Ultimately Heroic

I watched Fat Head for the first time this week.

For those who don’t know, Fat Head is a film made by Tom Naughton, a former stand-up comedian. He funded it entirely from his own pocket.

Naughton was also the maker of this video which I posted a while back - it's a great 3-minute intro on why the western diet is so wrong. In fact the short was part of the film too.

The film’s central theme is that we have all been fed a load of bologna where diet is concerned. Naughton aims the dual weaponry of his biting sarcasm and thorough background research at a number of targets.

He starts with Morgan Spurlock, whose documentary, Supersize Me, he savages. Then it’s onto the CSPI, the government and finally researchers like Ancel Keys, exposing the conflicts of interest, professional vanity and other human failings behind the maintenance of a bogus framework of food production and nutritional recommendation.

The trouble with the film is that not all the points Naughton makes are clear cut. In particular, his attack on Spurlock’s documentary swings the pendulum of credibility too far in the other direction.

Yes, there is amusing parody to be derived from this – I enjoyed seeing
Naughton ask perplexed interviewees whether they are forced to eat McDonalds by anyone. Likewise his witty vox pops, establishing that most people realise fast food has high calories; and when he asks McDonalds staff over the intercom whether he will be forced to eat fries with his food, it’s hard not to chuckle.

However, as many people realise, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, Spurlock tried to blame McDonalds for everything, and I am certainly not an apologist for his film; but demand and supply have a complex dynamic dictated by myriad factors, many of which are clearly exploited by fast food companies. To assume consumers can make choices that are best for them and for society strikes me as a little naive, and I am sure Naughton is far to savvy to genuinely believe it is this simple.

The question of addiction is also raised, with Naughton implying that Spurlock’s ability to stop eating junk food the moment his experiment ended renders the issue irrelevant. Yet I have read research suggesting that carbohydrates may indeed be addictive due to their association with opiate-like substances; and there are also indications they disrupt the ability to regulate appetite – i.e. stop eating at a given meal.

When the film really shines is when Naughton is not looking to score comedic points with his parody of Supersize Me, but making the case for the diet we should be eating, not the one we are being recommended.

Here he employs the same comic devices that are so effective in the short I mentioned above, so it remains as entertaining as the earlier parts of the film in spite of the increased emphasis on science and fact. In fact I enjoyed these sections more because I no longer had the uncomfortable feeling that complicated issues were being unduly simplified. On the nutrition issue, it really is that simple – and Naughton does a fantastic job showing us why, using
excellent interviews with, amongst others, Drs Mike and Mary Eades and drawing upon Gary Taubes’ Good Calories Bad Calories.

No review would be complete without mentioning the experiment – Naughton’s low carb version of Spurlock’s 30-day fast food diet. Naughton shows that by keeping carbs low, he not only improves the health metrics Spurlock’s experiment made worse, but actually improves his body composition – all on a fast food diet, mainly McDonalds.

His doctor, naturally, is baffled.

To be fair, Naughton does make it clear he does not believe McDonalds food is a healthy way to eat, with or without the buns, sodas and desserts. Yet I can imagine people tuning out this caveat. We have a habit, after all, of hearing what we want to hear.

The film did present one completely new angle for me - the bologna we may have been fed about the obesity epidemic. In the opening scenes the film exposes the familiar shoulders-down footage of grotesquely overweight people walking the streets as not necessarily representative of the reality. Apparently this has been overstated, fuelled by the familiar mix of blind media hype and organisational self interest.

In spite of my misgivings, I believe Naughton is a hero, and with hindsight am sure his original short was the inspiration for my own modest effort, Paleo in a Nutshell - you can certainly see that subconsciously or otherwise, I borrowed from his style and tone.

I do understand that without the film being billed as the antidote to Supersize Me it might have lacked marketability - so part of me is glad he took that stance, or the message might not have spread so far.

Fat Head was released in February this year and can be bought on DVD.

Further reading:
Mike Eades interviews Tom Naughton on his blog
Tom Naughton's blog
Fat Head movie web site

15 comments:

damaged justice said...

"...and I am sure Naughton is far to[o] savvy to genuinely believe it is this simple."

I guess I'm not savvy, because I genuinely believe it IS that simple. You choose to put things into your body, period, whether it's a steak, a doughnut, or a shot of heroin. Not everyone puts the same amount of effort into thinking about what they put into their bodies -- but in the average person who isn't a sub-moron, it is always a choice.

"To assume consumers can make choices that are best for them and for society strikes me as a little naive..."

When society pays my bills, I might take its desires into consideration. In the meantime, I make choices that I judge to be best for me.

"To be fair, Naughton does make it clear he does not believe McDonalds food is a healthy way to eat, with or without the buns, sodas and desserts. Yet I can imagine people tuning out this caveat. We have a habit, after all, of hearing what we want to hear."

If you tell someone the light is red, and they walk out into traffic anyway, it's not your fault when they get run over. When someone doesn't want to change what they're doing, they won't -- no matter how smart they are, no matter how well they listen, no matter how well informed.

Eric said...

"To assume consumers can make choices that are best for them and for society strikes me as a little naive, and I am sure Naughton is far to savvy to genuinely believe it is this simple."

That's an interesting statement. First - the flawed premise that individuals are obligated to make choices about what is best for society. What does it even mean for something to be "best for society"? A society is just a collection of individuals. Each must act in his own best interests to survive. It's impossible for anyone to make rational choices based on the interests of an entity that does not have specific interests.

Second, if individual consumers are incapable of making decisions for themselves, then who can make those choices for them? The government? McDonalds? If people don't feel they have enough access to nutritional info to make an informed choice at any food establishment, they are free to take their business elsewhere or fix a meal at home. At what point in the equation does McDonalds make it impossible for the customer to make a choice? I think Naughton defends this point fairly well in the movie.

Otherwise, I generally agree with your review. The movie is at its best in the second half when it digs into the science of nutrition and how it got bungled so badly. I found the first half to be a bit too snarky, especially when debunking Spurlock's documentary. I'm afraid it might poison the well for a lot of viewers who would otherwise find the movie compelling.

Thanks for writing the review. You're right that Fat Head is a heroic effort - one that deserves a larger audience.

Methuselah said...

Damaged Justice - It's not that I can't see your point of view on choice, but more that I feel we have to be realistic. We know that people don't always make the right choices. If they did, the tobacco industry would not exist by now. Not all smokers are sub-moron, I am sure you will agree.

I am not suggesting people should make decisions on society's behalf by the way - perhaps I did not make that clear enough - I accept that their decisions will be at best predominantly around self-interest; rather, I am suggesting that a completely uncontrolled system whereby free-will and market forces are allowed to dictate what people do is surely the road to ruin. Perhaps if left to make their own decisions people and companies would slowly iterate towards a better way of life - but even if that were true, I worry about the billions of $/£ governments pour into the health system in the meantime to treat the ailments caused when people make the wrong decisions.

As far as blame goes, I don't think that's relevant here. What matters is what people do. Widespread illness affects us all in the end, whether because friends and relatives get ill or because our taxes go up to fund initiatives to solve the rise in obesity. Whether or not people were stupid to make certain decisions or whether it was their fault does not help us deal with those problems - but regulating the advertising of junk food to children (for example) might.

Eric - see my point about society above - I think I was a bit unclear on that in the review.

To your second point, I should stress that I am not an advocate of draconian action. I do believe (in spite of how I may have sounded above) in a free market economy etc; I just felt that the film was over-simplistic to imply that because people are not forced to eat at McDonalds somehow McDonalds shoulders no responsibility. I hate to use the analogy a second time, but I believe the issue of tobacco is an excellent parallel. There does come a point at which it is inapproriate and even unethical for companies to market something to people even if they are given a choice it whether to use it. As many smokers will attest, choice is mitigated and driven by a variety of factors - so I would argue that providing someone with a choice cannot in solation be used as justification for making something available.

Skyler Tanner said...

I reviewed this some weeks back and Tom was kind enough to pop in and respond to my review.

That said, his diet wasn't JUST low carb; it was low calorie. Never mind that the math of loss didn't add up at the end (for a variety of factors); he was in a caloric deficit helping to spur loss.

Also, "It's not that I can't see your point of view on choice, but more that I feel we have to be realistic. We know that people don't always make the right choices. If they did, the tobacco industry would not exist by now."

This reminds me of how the left and the right argue politically: the left says society and lack of programs keep a person poor, while the right says it is a lack of motivation and self-interest that keeps a person poor. Tom (and hundreds of others) have shown that it is really a bit of both.

Asclepius said...

"if individual consumers are incapable of making decisions for themselves, then who can make those choices for them?"

There are loads of cases where individuals are both incapable of making decision for themselves and incapable of making the BEST decision for themselves. (Quantifying the latter is all but impossible.)

The mentally ill spring to mind as do addicts.

Also, if someone enjoys nicotine, beer or burgers, then maybe - scratching that itch is best for them if it helps them get through the day.

Some people don't want to live long and choose to live life that little bit faster and die younger.

JT said...

What kind of diet was Tom eating before this that his health markers and body composition were able to improve while eating McDonalds for 30 days?

Eric said...

"I am suggesting that a completely uncontrolled system whereby free-will and market forces are allowed to dictate what people do is surely the road to ruin."

Road to ruin for who?

"but even if that were true, I worry about the billions of $/£ governments pour into the health system in the meantime to treat the ailments caused when people make the wrong decisions."

This is a good argument for keeping/getting governments out of the business of healthcare. In a truly free capitalist society, people would be at liberty to shoulder the risks of whatever behavior they choose without others having to support their bad decisions. If you agree that free market solutions are ideal, then let's take action to move in that direction, not hand more control over our lives to the government in the name of "being realistic" within a system that's doomed to fail.

"widespread illness affects us all in the end, whether because friends and relatives get ill or because our taxes go up to fund initiatives to solve the rise in obesity."

The risk of getting ill is one of the consequences of living and trading with other humans. It doesn't give any of us the right to force those around us to consume or not consume certain foods.

"I do believe (in spite of how I may have sounded above) in a free market economy etc;"

In what sense? From what I gather, you think that many/most people are inherently incapable of making good decisions for themselves, and that without the government defining/enforcing "the right choices" (for who, and according to whose definition?), we're all doomed. That's the complete opposite of a free market economy.

"There does come a point at which it is inapproriate and even unethical for companies to market something to people even if they are given a choice it whether to use it."

Yes, and that point is when the company is misrepresenting what they're selling. If McDonalds were marketing their french fries as "heart healthy" or their burgers as "grass-fed" when they actually aren't, that's fraud, and the government should intervene. Anything less than that is one free person voluntarily trading with another. None of us has the moral right to stop that, no matter how ill-advised we think the participants in that transaction are.

Sorry for the rant. I'm going to try to refrain from posting again :)

Methuselah said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. Feel free to rant - I think it's great to get people talking about this one, even though clearly some of us may never agree!

Asclepius - good point about the existence of some people for whom decisions do need to be made by others.

JT - not sure what Tom's pre-experiment diet was, although I think he has some pretty detailed food loags over on the movie site (link in the post) so you may find something there.

Eric - I think it would be the road to ruin for society's health. I feel the recent financial crisis is a good illustration of what happens when insufficient regulation allows individuals to make decisions that are rational for them or their immediate peers but not necessarily for the whole ecosystem.

And by the way, I am not suggesting we put everything in the hands of government - we need independant regulators. Trouble is, whilst right now we do have regulators - they just aren't independant.

So I think it's possible to believe in a free market without subscribing to the wholesale handing over of everything to market forces. Some aspects of our lives may require more regulation than others, particularly where there are more profound ethics involved.

Just to be clear, I am neither an economist, nor a physician nor an expert in politics - just someone thinking out loud on the topic.

It sounds like you may favour the idea of allowing market forces to take care of what companies offer people to eat, what people choose to eat and how they get their healthcare - so I am curious: if this approach were taken, how do you think things would change? I guess my other question would be this - if you had a magic wand, what would be the big changes you would make (if any) to make the world Tom Naughton describes better?

Asclepius said...

Eric - some good points but I think you are focussing almost exclusively on the individual.

Human progress has come about with the rise of society - and society only develops if we all sacrifice a little bit and 'play by the rules'. It will unavoidably lead to a 'dependent class'.

Plenty of biologists, physicists and mathematicians are obese/drinkers/smokers/unfit etc... - but their wider contribution is to our individual benefit.

Eric said...

"I think it would be the road to ruin for society's health."

Remember, societies are just collections of individuals living and working together. Societies don't have health. Individuals do. So it's important to be clear about exactly who you mean when you talk about society. Do you mean every single individual within the collective? Again, it's impossible for any person to make decisions that are rational for society in that sense, because individual humans by nature have very different interests, depending on their circumstances.

"I feel the recent financial crisis is a good illustration of what happens when insufficient regulation allows individuals to make decisions that are rational for them or their immediate peers but not necessarily for the whole ecosystem."

In fact, the markets that created this crisis in the U.S. (financial and real estate) are some of the most heavily regulated in the country. You seem to think that if only these markets were *more* regulated, by *better* regulators, then society would flourish. I see it as proof that government intervention in markets can only lead to disaster, because the regulating organizations do not face the harsh reality of market forces. When they fail, there are no financial consequences for them – they can always just tax more (in the name of “the good of society”).

"I am curious: if this approach were taken, how do you think things would change? I guess my other question would be this - if you had a magic wand, what would be the big changes you would make (if any) to make the world Tom Naughton describes better?"

Well, first I would get the government out of the healthcare business altogether. Let people take responsibility for their own actions. If someone wants to eat deep fried Twinkies every day and have a heart attack at 40, let him finance that lifestyle himself. I don't agree with that person’s choice, but I recognize that he is a free human being capable of informing himself and making rational decisions about his health just as I have done. As long as I’m not forced to pay for the consequences when reality catches up with him, I have no right to insist he live his life the way I would live mine.

I'd also get the government out of the nutritional advice business. The science of nutrition is constantly evolving, but governments are extremely slow to change. I think Fat Head demonstrates quite nicely what happens when government bureaucrats start defining what constitutes health food.

Now, that doesn't mean I wouldn't rather see people make smart decisions about how to eat. That's where people like Tom Naughton, Dr. Eades and Mark Sisson come in. A single entertaining movie or well-written book can radically change the prevailing ideas in a culture. By advocating rational ideas about nutrition and supporting the people we know are right, we can help shift the demand for high-sugar, high-carb fast food to more nutritious whole food. You’re already doing this with your blog, your participation on Twitter, etc. Not everyone will be on board, but so what? Let them live their lives as they see fit.

As for regulation, if the demand for quality assurance is there, there's no reason that privately-run organizations wouldn't spring up to help consumers evaluate which products/services are worth their money. Private organizations like Underwriters Laboratories, Better Business Bureau, and Angie’s List already do an excellent job of this - far better than their government-funded counterparts.

I think these changes would lead to a safer, less expensive food supply with more options and freedom of choice. Many people would still make poor decisions, but that would be their prerogative, as no one but themselves would be forced to sustain their unhealthy lifestyles.

Methuselah said...

Eric - I understand the points you are making and I would personally love it if the scenarios could be made to happen in the way you describe - but there are some factors that I think would undermine things progressing in that way.

First, if a bunch of people eat twinkies all day then get ill, a proportion of them simply will lack the funds or insurance to deal with some or all of the health consequences. How do we deal with them? If we take a caring approach then we fund their healthcare - otherwise we may generate increased poverty from which potentially increased crime. If requiring people to pay for their health mistakes leads to crime and/or a tax-funded welfare burden then it affects people other than just those who made those mistakes.

I am also not sure we can rely on private enterprise to do the right thing on nutritional advice and healthcare. If you have ever seen the film 'The Corporation' you may have come away with the same disturbing picture as I did - that companies do not operate ethically because it makes no sense for them to do so even though they may actually contain some ethical individuals. I think pharmaceutical companies care less about people's health and more about making money for their shareholders.

So whilst I am not saying governments do the best job of looking after our health and nutritional advice, I'd hate to see it managed by a profit-making organisation of any kind. And the trouble is that for an organisation to get big enough to make a real difference it generally needs to be profit-driven or in some way government sponsored.

I don't want to underplay the potential for change from the bottom. Obviously I think we can make a difference that way or I wouldn't blog myself and I think Mark and Dr Mike do a great job. Clearly if they can influence opinion, then a groundswell can be created. I also appreciate that you are perhaps suggesting that the kinds of privately-run organisations you are talking about might not be profit making.

But....what do we do about the sheer power of the companies we are up against? What hope has Mark Sisson or Mike Eades against the PR and advertising power of Kellogs, or Coca Cola? Sure, Dr Mike and Mark get a lot of people reading their blogs, but does it compare to the millions reached daily by the advertising pumped through their marketing departments?

That power imbalance has the potential to make change take decades. But the existence of regulators, inadequate though they may be, gives a focus for people like Eades to target. If he can change their mind, they have the power to force Coca Cola to stop doing things now rather than in 10 years which is how long it could take Eades to spread the word widely enough for market forces to kick in.

I guess it all comes down to how much you care about a free society, or how you define it. Sounds like I am a little more prepared than you to force people to do things for their own good - which as Skyler points out in his comment, is somewhat akin to the age old disagreement between left and right...

Eric said...

Asclepius:

“Eric - some good points but I think you are focussing almost exclusively on the individual.”

Of course I am! Individuals are the only ones who can take action in the context we’re discussing. Human societies are not hive-mind borg collectives. They’re collections of individuals acting independently, and (ideally) trading and collaborating through voluntary exchange.

“Human progress has come about with the rise of society”

I don’t disagree. But, I would clarify it just a touch: human progress has come about with the rise of individual humans recognizing the value of living in increasingly large groups and trading voluntarily to mutual benefit. Compare the progress of communist Russia or theocratic Iran to the progress of 19th century America or 20th century Hong Kong. The more freedom the members of a society have, the more life-promoting progress we see.

“ - and society only develops if we all sacrifice a little bit and 'play by the rules'.”

This is false – unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean by sacrifice. I take sacrifice to mean acting against one’s long-term interests. It’s not a sacrifice if I’m doing something for my own benefit, right? So your argument amounts to this: individuals living in a group can only see net improvement in their lives if they each act against their own interests. Hopefully it’s clear why this cannot possibly be the case.

Methuselah:

“First, if a bunch of people eat twinkies all day then get ill, a proportion of them simply will lack the funds or insurance to deal with some or all of the health consequences.”

Yes, and then they’ll have some difficult choices to make, won’t they? There’s always going to be a portion of society that has to hit rock bottom before they start questioning their course in life. I do agree that a benevolent society would step up to help out, provided the person demonstrates a genuine commitment to improving his life. But there’s no reason this has to be handled by forced redistribution of wealth. Private charities are more than capable of addressing these issues and would likely receive ample voluntary funding from a truly free society, where each individual has full control over the profit from his productive work.

“I think pharmaceutical companies care less about people's health and more about making money for their shareholders.”

I’ve not seen The Corporation, so I can’t comment on that. However, I will say that in a free market, without governments funding research and subsidizing costs, pharmaceutical companies would not stay profitable for long if they consistently produced products that were of no value to their consumers.

“So whilst I am not saying governments do the best job of looking after our health and nutritional advice, I'd hate to see it managed by a profit-making organisation of any kind…I also appreciate that you are perhaps suggesting that the kinds of privately-run organisations you are talking about might not be profit making.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Profit incentive is the best possible motivator for quality. Do you think Mark Sisson doesn’t want to make a profit off of his vitamin supplements? Is Dr. Eades writing his books and running his practice for the benefit of everyone but himself? Does Apple make the best computers and electronics in the world because they’re happy just to break even (or better yet, operate at a loss!) as long as the greater good is served? Of course not. Quality rises to the top when companies and individuals are left alone to seek out the most profit they can from their efforts. The only way a company can possibly survive by offering inferior products/services is through government subsidy.

“But....what do we do about the sheer power of the companies we are up against?”

We keep doing what we’re doing. We certainly don’t force people to do what we or some government bureaucrat thinks is good for them. That’s the kind of thinking that makes it illegal for me to purchase raw milk, since it clearly couldn’t be in my interests to risk getting sick from drinking it. And even if it were, we couldn’t risk the “good of society” with the potential threat of a tuberculosis outbreak. Goodness no!

“That power imbalance has the potential to make change take decades. But the existence of regulators, inadequate though they may be, gives a focus for people like Eades to target.”

As a short-term strategy, perhaps. But long term success will never be achieved unless we start advocating free market solutions.

“I guess it all comes down to how much you care about a free society, or how you define it. Sounds like I am a little more prepared than you to force people to do things for their own good”

Yes, it does. If you endorse coercive action when it aligns with your point of view, you’ve given moral sanction to the government that next week makes eggs or fatty meat verboten because it’s bad for society’s health. It is a fact of reality that in order to survive, each human being must be free to use his own rational capacity to determine what is in his long-term survival interests. It was this way for Grok and it will be this way as long as humans walk the earth – it’s the only way individual humans can survive. Nothing magical happens to change this fact when a group of humans come together (be it two or two million).

This really will be my last comment on this post. Clearly we have profound philosophical differences that probably won’t be bridged with further debate. I’ve enjoyed the discussion, and appreciate you giving me the space to make my case.

Asclepius said...

"Human societies are not hive-mind borg collectives."

Strangely enough they exhibit exactly this behaviour at times. Take a look at Emergence by Steven Johnson.

I broadly agree with your point that "The more freedom the members of a society have, the more life-promoting progress we see", but this needs qualifying. For example, what about those that freely choose to follow Sharia Law?

I wouldn't reduce my argument to the notion that "individuals living in a group can only see net improvement in their lives if they each act against their own interests". But would say that all successful societies have an element of individuals being prepared to act against their own self interest for the greater good of the group.

Shelley said...

Thanks for bringing the doco to my attention, I watched it earlier this week. Agree that he really shines when explaining the sciences behind why certain carbs are so bad. I think he is a pretty good teacher in this respect, and would love to see him take on primal lifestyle and shock the general public with the notion of intermittent fasting and the science behind that.

Darth Chaos said...

To me, Fat Head is a refreshing change from corporate-controlled food politics. (By "corporate-controlled", I am referring to the fact that CSPI and the Center for Consumer Freedom are both controlled and funded by Rockefeller-linked corporations. CSPI is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Rockefeller Family Fund. Consumer Freedom is funded by Monsanto which itself is linked to the Rockefeller Foundation.)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin