Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic

Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic
Courtesy of HBO.com

Last night I had the opportunity to watch HBO's latest documentary The Weight of the Nation.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is concerned about our nation's growing obesity epidemic.

I don't envy the documentarians who faced the daunting task of presenting this complex problem to the American people.  Where does one start to raise the red flag without sounding like an alarmist?  How does a filmmaker solicit empathy for those affected without assigning blame or dismissing personal responsibility?  It was a very fine line that the filmmakers had to walk and they walked it quite well.

The documentary was broken down into three parts; consequences, choices, and children in crisis.  Alternately, you can view it On Demand as a series of short features by topic.  I suggest watching all three parts in full before watching the edited shorts separately.

This film series covers the basic facts and intersperses a series of personal stories that seeks to put real faces on this epidemic.  With 68% of the American population overweight, we need only look in the mirror to recognize the problem.  Only after we acknowledge that this is becoming an epidemic will we be able to confront it.

It is almost impossible to recap all the information that comes at the viewer throughout the first three parts of this film.  There are a lot of startling statistics and disturbing correlations.  Amidst the experts speaking to us in conversational tone, we find people who have confronted the problem head-on and are taking bold steps to solve it both individually and communally.  You will find plenty of inspiration in this documentary.

One of the short features that I viewed separately was on Nashville Tennessee and the mayor's plan to make the city more accessible to all citizens seeking physical activity.  With 30% of his residents obese, he believes that it is important to get citizens out walking and riding bikes.  The progress being made in Nashville is impressive.

As a bicycling advocate, this documentary reinforces my argument for improved active transportation infrastructure.  I consider the recognition of bicycling as a healthy lifestyle choice but one small value of this film.

I encourage each of you to view this series on HBO (scheduled, On Demand, or online).  I plan on posting about it again once more people are familiar with its content and are ready for further discussion.

In the meantime, keep riding and be safe.


If you found this post helpful, share it on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter by clicking the boxes below the article title.

If you like this blog, fan it on Facebook and follow me on Twitter by clicking the boxes below my bio.



Leave a comment
  • I find it very interesting that a “documentary” takes such a slanted view of an issue and does not offer any information or interviews with experts that hold opinions that counter those offered.
    The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) has prepared a response to the upcoming HBO documentary series, "The Weight of the Nation." (WOTN) The response is called "Debate the Weight" and we invite you to check it out here: www.debatetheweight.com

    Here are some components of the response:
    • An overview of the Debate the Weight response, with more useful links
    • An episode by episode, evidence-based breakdown of what to expect from the WOTN series
    • A detailed response to the WOTN trailer
    • ADSAH's "Debate the Weight" video

  • In reply to radfatty:

    Thanks for sharing this link and beginning the discussion. I will include this in my followup post next week.

    Obesity isn't a cause, it's an effect. The correlation of obesity with BMI and metabolic syndrome - which your group's website objects to - shouldn't be the concern.

    It's all about metabolism. Too many calories - especially energy-dense calories that are devoid of nutrients - increase the creation of triglycerides. Triglycerides are stored in fat cells. Their transport causes inflammation, plaque build-up, and alters the regulation of blood sugar. Obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer are caused by the overconsumption of all calories with greater damage from the energy-dense, high fructose variety.

    A BMI greater than 30 is like a paper trail. It shows a history of bad food choices and/or overconsumption. Depending on one's genetics, these choices increase the odds for developing one or more forms of metabolic syndrome (as the Bogalusa study shown in the film correlates). Since each individual is complex, there is no way to show universal causation from a particular manner of eating. Correlation is the best way to demonstrate the likelihood of risk.

    How an individual handles risk factors is a personal choice until the rest of society is being asked to pay for it. Metabolic syndrome is preventable - it takes recognition, understanding, and determination to change poor eating habits. It takes policy changes to create an environment that makes healthy choices available to all.

    The documentary doesn't seek to vilify the overweight or obese. On the contrary, it shows affected individuals to be normal people facing a tough personal challenge. Getting to the root of what is making 2/3s of our nation at greater risk of metabolic syndrome is the first step in working out a long-term solution.

    I had to suffer a heart attack before seeing the error in my personal choices. I wouldn't wish that method of discovery on anyone else...

  • Activity is only part of the answer, and whatever activity taken should be a voluntary action and not as a result of an inducement by either employers or mandated by the government as being a cost-cutting measure for the collective.

    Part of the problem is the food pyramid. For how long now did the faulty advice of loading up on grains hold sway? Growing evidence shows that grains are far from the "health" food that they are supposed to be. More good intentions backfiring. But, hey, who cares about results.

    In addition, current studies show that for those interested in first losing weight, adding exercise too early to the mix will only increase appetites.

    Regarding bike riding, it is fine. However, there is an arrogance that SOME riders have, in thinking they are above the traffic laws. It is really annoying to find riders two abreast on a busy street, who almost dare you to hit them.

    There is a well established "activity infrastructure" already in place. It is called a sidewalk. In the curvy burb streets, it is called... a street.

    I believe in choice, and this is not where the "fat problem" is going. The fat problem is going the route of cigarette choice. I expect to see a "fat tax" at McDonald's very soon, especially if ObamaCare becomes the law of the land. It can happen: Look at Mayor Nanny Bloomberg in NYC. Rahm is cut from the same dictatorial cloth.

  • Richard, this time I agree with some of what you are saying.

    I was a cyclist for ten years, had a BMI below the overweight line, didn't smoke, didn't drink, and tended to eat on the healthier side - yet I still had a heart attack at the age of 43. I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out what caused my plaque buildup and the underlying arterial inflammation. My personal conclusion was too much sugar, mainly in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

    It wasn't a lack of physical activity, although 10 years of conditioning my heart is likely what contributed to my survival. As the documentary clearly states, an individual won't be able to lose weight, burn body fat, and reverse the start of metabolic syndrome with exercise alone - no matter how vigorous. But regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight and a strong heart.

    The activity infrastructure I commented on is a mixed bag at best. In Nashville (featured in the film), they hadn't built sidewalks since 1963 and the entire area was built for auto traffic. People couldn't commute by bike or walk to a park or store safely if they wanted to. Throughout our own city and suburbs (where I live) there are many areas that prohibit safe bicycling or walking. Recognizing that incomplete infrastructure has an impact on quality of life is a good first step in incorporating the needs of ALL residents into urban planning.

    I won't defend the behavior of some cyclists for the same reason that you wouldn't expect me to defend the behavior of some drivers. I encourage every rider to ride predictably, defensively, and to obey the rules of the road. I staunchly defend their right to be on the road. How each person chooses to share the road is beyond my control.

    I agree with you about the flawed food pyramid and even its replacement, My Plate. Too many refined grains (not whole grains) and added sugars and not enough vegetables is at the root of metabolic syndrome. Elevated triglycerides cause inflammation and contribute to body fat, putting an individual at risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

    Substituting whole fruits (skin and fiber), increasing vegetables, staying with lean proteins and good fats plus mindful portion control was my personal formula for dropping 35 pounds, improving my lipid profile, and staying in shape for the past 3 years. Regular exercise is part of the mix for weight maintenance, strength and conditioning, and stress relief.

    This documentary is the first step in confronting the problem. My personal belief - and this was not made implicit in the film - is that the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup since 1980 shows the strongest correlation with the rise of obesity and metabolic syndrome. The prevalence of cheap, energy-dense, convenient, feel-good food and liquid calories is likely the cause of the epidemic. All the other factors - greater stress, more sedentary lifestyles, less time to cook - are ancillary issues.

    We may have a disagreement on the "fat tax" as you state it. I don't see the issue as one of a Nanny State - I see it as an issue of equalizing externalities.

    Cigarette smoking leads to extreme, expensive healthcare in a smoker's 50s and 60s and it ultimately gets transferred to all of society in the form of increased medical care fees, higher health insurance premiums, and greater costs for Medicaid and Medicare. Tobacco taxes transfer that cost back on those who choose to smoke. They still have the choice - they just have to pay for more of smoking's externalities.

    I think it's time for a sugar tax. Why is a 20 ounce bottle of water more expensive than a 20 ounce soda? Both use water. One adds other ingredients at an additional cost. Why don't they charge extra (or sell the water for less)? Because the HFCS in soda never satisfies your thirst (or your hunger) and you buy it in larger quantities. Why else is HFCS added to low fat and low sodium "healthy" prepared meals and salty snacks? For taste and the suppression of Grehlin which tells your brain you're full! As a result, the average person consumes 600 calories more per day today than in 1980. That's just more money for the food companies.

    Since the food industry is fine with pushing its externalities onto the taxpayers - and healthcare costs are going to continue to increase along with the obesity epidemic - those that CHOOSE sugar-sweetened food products should pay more so the rest of society doesn't have to.

    If the cost of a 2-liter of soda were to be more than a gallon of whole milk, the choice would be more equitable to all parties. Those choosing soda would be banking funds for the inevitable treatment of their own metabolic syndrome ailments. Those that chose the healthier alternative would not be. I believe in choice, as long as the true cost is the price that is being compared.

    It's extremely ironic (and just plain stupid) that our government subsidizes the growing of corn which is converted into an artificial sweetener that has likely increased obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer that ultimately will lead to higher healthcare costs for the government! As taxpayers we're paying to make ourselves unhealthy - this has to change...

Leave a comment