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.
Mike Eades interviews Tom Naughton on his blog
Tom Naughton's blog
Fat Head movie web site