Brady Kluge on the Documentary, “Fed Up,” and His Fight to Win the Obesity Battle 

I’m so proud of Fed Up, the 2014 documentary that I executive produced about the obesity epidemic and how it’s endangering our kids. Brady Kluge was one of the young people who bravely allowed us to take an intimate look at his ongoing struggle to control his weight and his attempts to lead a healthier life. I recently heard from Brady and I’m so thrilled to report that he has made tremendous progress in the years since we were last in touch — he’s lost a total of 148 pounds and he’s a first-year medical student at the University of South Carolina, Greenville! Watch Fed Up, which is streaming now on Amazon Prime, and read our conversation below…

Katie Couric: I’m so proud of you! Catch me up on your life since we filmed the documentary…
Brady Kluge: Katie, you are so gracious and kind. There has been a copious amount of changes since my time being filmed in “Fed Up.” If I remember correctly, I was 14 years old when the crew originally started filming. Now, I’m 23 years old. Since the film was released back in 2014, I’ve graduated from North Greenville University with a Bachelor of Science, and I am now a first-year medical student at The University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville. My thoughts about the future are buoyant, and I could not be more grateful to have the opportunity to participate in such an edifying medical school program. In reference to “Fed Up,” since the film has been released, I have had a remarkable number of viewers reach out to me via social media with questions, comments, or even just to offer their support and empathy regarding my struggle with obesity. The public’s response to “Fed Up,” made it very clear to me that my story was a narrative that many people were able to connect with, regardless if they themselves were obese. It was eye-opening to see individuals of all different ages, genders, races, and backgrounds demonstrate a unified cognizance of the obesity pandemic, and have very emotional responses to the personal stories within the film.

Katie: You look amazing! How have you been managing your weight since we filmed?
Brady: I do not remember my exact weight when the film was released, however I do know that even after “Fed Up” was released, I continued to gain weight. My highest weight was recorded at 338 pounds. Given my height, that is a body mass index (BMI) of 50. I had reached the classification of “super-morbidly obese.” At this point, I was a sophomore in college. I was pre-diabetic, hypertensive, and depressed. I had issues with inflammation, fatigue, obstructive sleep apnea, and dyslipidemia (abnormal composition of fat in the blood). I was absolutely progressing towards a funeral before the age of 40. During my junior year of college, December of 2016, I finally decided to stop fighting obesity alone, and I reached out to a surgical weight loss program. First, let me say there are a lot of misconceptions of what surgical weight loss is. Surgical weight loss is not a “bad” term. It is not an “easy way out,” as I’ve personally heard someone state. Surgical weight loss is an option for obese individuals who have attempted to lose weight noninvasively without success. I had tried every diet. I had tried eating healthier and exercising. During my teenage years, I had even tried starvation (at the time, I had very little medical knowledge), which I now know can cause several pathophysiological effects, and has been shown to have very little impact on long-term weight reduction.

After consulting with a physician, I elected to have a minimally-invasive procedure called “vertical sleeve gastrectomy,” what’s commonly referred to as “gastric sleeve.” The surgery involves inserting fiber-optic instruments through the abdominal wall, and removing a large portion of the stomach, leaving a stomach that is approximately 15% of the original size (comparable to a banana or “sleeve’). The months prior to surgery were difficult. I had to go on a very strict liquid diet for three weeks, so that my liver would decrease in size, making it possible for the surgeon to have adequate visualization during the procedure. The months after surgery were full of changes and adaptations that I had to make. My stomach could only hold baby-sized portions for the first 6-months, which is when the weight loss was most significant. In order to make sure that my body does obtain enough nutrients to function optimally, I supplement with bariatric vitamins and protein shakes.

On the day of surgery (I lost 22 pounds prior to surgery), January of 2017, I weighed in at 316 pounds. Today, I weigh 190 pounds. I lost 148 pounds, an astounding 44% of my highest body weight. I migrated from a body mass index of 50 to a body mass index of 28. Since then, I have joined a gym, which I attend regularly. My food choices have significantly improved. I will not say that I do not continue to face the same struggles. However, the surgery has significantly reduced the amount of food that I can consume. From an emotional standpoint, It motivates me even more to continue striving to make healthier choices when I actually see results. I will never forget the first time that I was able to jog on a treadmill for over six minutes before running out of breath. That statement may sound trivial to many people, but for me, it was a significant victory. With that said, I am not claiming that implementing healthier diet and exercise habits will not lead to weight loss. What I am claiming is that I was too addicted to fast food, sugar, and processed obesogenic foods to keep myself from consuming them. I was somewhat comparable to the alcoholic at the bar. I tried to stop going to the bar many times. But each time I almost succeeded, a friend invited me for a drink, even offering to cover the bill, insisting that one drink wouldn’t hurt, chanting “moderation is key.” Well, let’s just say I never just had “one drink.” I cannot put into words the internal struggle that I went through. I was emotionally devastated, and I ultimately felt defeated. It was even difficult for me to go out in public, or even to class. I was constantly self-conscious about what thoughts were in other people’s minds. It made things worse that when growing up, I remember several instances of individuals making comments (of which I will not repeat verbatim due to its emotional effect that it had on me personally) that insinuated being obese was strictly a personal issue, and that I was simply just a lazy person who eats too much. I am expeditious to acknowledge that I consumed way too many calories on a frequent basis. More importantly, I will acknowledge that neither I, nor most other individuals who are or have been overweight or obese, are lazy and unmotivated to become healthier, and to improve our lives. The ingredients in our food (specifically sugar), is addictive. These foods cause physical and psychological dependence. Once addicted, you can experience withdrawals just as one would from other addictive sources. Weight loss has never and never will be as simple as “calories in, calories out.” There is a much more complicated science behind the psychopathophysiology of obesity.

Katie: What was it like watching yourself in the documentary? How did it affect you and your commitment to changing your lifestyle?
Brady: I watched the film in its entirety once at the premiere in New York City. I watch clips of it periodically, but I refuse to watch myself on screen. There’s just something odd about seeing yourself and hearing yourself on TV, knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have watched you on film. I’d much rather just give a speech to thousands of people. I will, however, say there is a sense of accountability knowing that there are so many people who have expressed their veneration to me. Even though I did this for myself, there’s a small part of me that is committed to showing others that there IS a way out of obesity. We ALL can fight the obesity pandemic, regardless of your body weight. Every individual will not defeat obesity using the same weapon, but we all will defeat obesity as part of the same army, wearing different uniforms, but having the same mission: to love ourselves and to love others.

Katie: What was the reaction from your friends and family to the documentary?
Brady: I’m from a very small, rural area in South Carolina. I am probably what most people would refer to as a “southern boy.” Being on the big screen is not something that I, nor my family and friends, ever expected. They are all very supportive of my endeavors and were very excited to see my story influencing so many people.

Katie: You’re going to be a doctor! Do you think your experience learning about nutrition and food contribute to that ambition?
Brady: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that being a clinician who has struggled with obesity will resonate with a significant number of patients. I speak from my own personal experiences when I say that a patient-physician interaction feels more bonafide when I am with a physician who I feel can relate to my struggles, shows empathy, and understands just how difficult my struggles are. My future patients are my highest priority secondary to my family. I will always want my patients to see that I KNOW how difficult it is to change lifestyles. I KNOW the emotional impact that obesity has on your self-image. I KNOW the financial struggle that many families face. I know when purchasing a comparable amount of processed food versus fresh food, it seems that you get a lot more “bang for your buck.” This is the thought process that I too, a medical student, use daily. I had to start seeing the bigger picture. I was missing the point that eating these processed foods can eventually lead to extensive medication therapy, doctor visits, laboratory tests, surgeries, and other expensive healthcare-related costs. I KNOW that it is hard to feed a family of six, especially when not everyone in your family struggles with obesity and lacks a desire to eat healthy (like a recovering alcoholic living with bartenders). However, my message has now become that I ALSO KNOW obesity is reversible and is a battle that CAN be won, regardless of how you defeat it. If I did it, my patients can do it too. The best medication I will ever be able to prescribe to my patients is simple: support, love, motivation, empathy, and a judgement-free zone.

Katie: What advice would you give to other young people who struggle with their weight and are trying to change their habits?
Brady: First off, love yourself. You are beautiful and valuable regardless of your weight. Even losing weight could not make you a better person than you already are. Secondly, find your purpose. Find your reasons for why you want to lose weight and be honest with yourself. Once you determine your reasons, ask yourself, “Is losing weight really going to help me achieve those goals?” Hollywood tends to portray this idealism that having the “perfect body” will bring you happiness and joy, but this is not true. Everyone, regardless of what society’s perception of their looks is, has struggles with their self-image. So, if your main goal in losing weight is to have a more pleasant outward appearance, just know that the bathroom mirror is what probably judges your personal appearance the most. Most importantly, know that you need to stop shaming yourself. Shaming individuals simply because of their weight is not acceptable; not from others, and not from yourself. I remember those moments catching myself in a drive-thru thinking, “Why am I so fat? Why am I so weak?” If you take a step back, you will notice that fast-food restaurants generate billions of dollars in revenue each year and serve billions of customers across the world. There is a large majority of fast-food consumers who are not overweight. You did not arrive at that drive thru because you are weak or fat. You arrived at that drive-thru because you are human, and humans make mistakes. Do not be afraid to fail. The only true failure is if you quit trying. Try to be around people who are supportive. At the medical school I attend, the professors and other students are passionate about lifestyle medicine, meaning the prevention and treatment of diseases through lifestyle choices such as nutrition, stress management, and exercise. It is much easier to make healthier choices when I am around those who have similar goals, and who are encouraging rather than discouraging. Find a network of support.

Katie: I read this on your Instagram, and I love it so much: “Do not listen to the words of ignorance. Once, I was shamed by students. Once, I was shamed by teachers. Once, I was shamed by myself. Now, the only thing that is shamed is the idea that progress is not achievable.” Would you say that’s your life’s motto now?
Brady: This is most definitely my motto. Progress is vitally important to me. However, please do not get the idea that I do not struggle and fail at times with lifestyle choices. To me, progress does not mean a continual upward trend, where I am always improving, and I never have a downfall. Progress, to me, is striving to improve my life no matter what unwise life decisions I have previously made. If I fail at something, so be it. Progress is the process of accepting that failure, learning from it, and moving on to bigger and better places. I refuse to quit advocating, motivating, and communicating with those who know the struggle. I may have lost weight, but I will never lose the personal life experiences that provide a strong impetus for progression.

Katie: Thanks so much, Brady!