Sunday, January 27, 2013
Review: Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead
I just watched Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead on Netflix. I have seen and heard a lot of buzz on this film in the blogging community. The documentary follows Joe Cross, an Aussie with a big personality and a bigger gut, on his 60-day juice fast and cross-country tour of the U.S.A. with his Breville Juicer. The juicer may be the star of the show, and I'm pretty sure that Breville put up much of the money for this film. Along the way, he talks to ordinary people about what he is doing and asks them about their diets. I found the film entertaining and fun to watch, but not necessarily very informative.
Joe suffers from an autoimmune disorder called chronic uticaria, and when we first meet him, he is taking massive doses of prednisolone for it. My cat is on this medication, and before we got the dose right, he got really big and puffed-up from it. I am sure that at least some of Joe's big gut was due to the steroids, and as he reduced his medicine throughout the movie, that swelling went down as well. Implied, though not necessarily stated outright, is that the juices cured Joe of his condition, allowing him to decrease and eventually drop the medication. I think that he was careful not to claim this directly, because then he would be giving medical advice and could be in trouble with the FDA.
Juicing has always seemed a little faddish to me. I can see the appeal -- put in a whole bunch of healthy stuff and drink your veggies in a nutrient-packed, convenient glass instead of munching through cups and cups of vegetables. But it does seem better to eat your food instead of drinking it (Dr. Lustig backs me up on this). When I saw MizFit say she juiced her veggies and then ate the pulp, I couldn't see the point of bothering with the juicer. As Joe Cross talks about his juice fast to the man-and-woman-on-the-street, they look at him like he is crazy and say, "I could never do that." He seems baffled why they wouldn't consider even giving it a try. I would think that the expense of buying a juicer, and then finding out I didn't really like or use it, would be a very good reason, personally. The main justification Joe Cross gives for suggesting the juice fast over a regular healthy diet is that it will help people change their tastes. It also is a little more interesting to suggest something dramatic and drastic than the boring old "eat your veggies."
The larger question of why people wouldn't consider making a change to their diets is more interesting to me. When Joe talks to the average people he meets about what he is doing, they wrinkle up their noses and say he's crazy. They say that they would rather die "fat and happy" than live a few extra years of deprivation. The thing is, though, that these people are definitely fat but they don't look happy. They look awful. Their skin looks dull, their necks blend into their faces, their hair looks stringy. He talks to one woman who looks particularly terrible, and when he asks her how old she is and she answers, I have to rewind to get another look at her. She's the same age as me, 42, and she looks like she could be my grandmother.
She's also standing in front of what is apparently her home, though, and it's obvious that she's living in extreme poverty. That is the unspoken undercurrent, to me, of the whole movie. These people are eating the way they are not because it's making them happy, but because it's what's available and affordable. It's not easy to find healthy, affordable food in most of the U.S. Even in farm country, they are mostly growing corn and soybeans for pigs and cows, not vegetables and fruit for humans. That's why the problem has to be addressed on a public health level, as Dr. Lustig suggests. When poor or lower-middle-class Americans try to make a big change in their diet, they are swimming upstream, and are going to get a lot of flak from friends and family who can't understand why they won't just "eat like a normal person" instead of making so much fuss.
That brings me to my favorite part of the film, when truck driver Phil Staples actually does take Joe up on his offer to juice fast. Phil is 429 pounds when he meets Joe and after a casual conversation about their shared skin condition, at first it seems that he will be just another person who listens to the spiel and goes back to eating his hamburger. But he calls Joe a few months later and asks if he still is willing to help him. Joe, back in Australia, jumps on a plane and sets Phil up with some medical tests, a juicer, and a little place on a lake to help him break away from his normal routine. Phil has a lot of pain just walking, his weight is suffocating him when he tries to sleep, and he seems miserable and depressed. He has a BMI of 59 -- the chart ends at 60. His older brother, Bear, who weighs about 100 pounds less than him but is also still very obese, is worried about him. Astonishingly, Phil gets serious and really does change his life. I won't spoil it for you by detailing all the dramatic changes, but if you want, you can check an article catching up with him after the film ended. There is a dramatic scene later after brother Bear has a heart attack and reaches out to his younger brother for help. As they are sitting at Bear's dining room table, they go through his plastic ice cream bucket full of medications, more than $500 before insurance coverage. This, I think, is supposed to counter our doubts about the cost of juicing and eating a healthy diet.
I think this movie will get a lot of people thinking, but I hope they don't think that they have to do something as dramatic as a 60-day juice fast to make big changes in their lives. I know that dramatic changes make better movies, but those of us in real life can just start where we are, make gradual changes, and get big results too.
"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07