Weight of the Nation: Battle of the Bulge Comes to Cable

by Sarah Henry on May 15, 2012 · 17 comments

in civil eats,food films,food politics,food research,food security,grist,school food

By any measure, American are packing on the pounds at an unprecedented rate. Photos: Courtesy HBO

HBO has a history of tackling serious American health-care crises. In recent years, the cable network has taken on addiction and Alzheimer’s to much critical acclaim. And now the network has turned its attention to another huge health problem: obesity and its enormous economic, emotional, social, and health cost on individuals, families, communities, and the country at large.

As Americans have gained weight in recent years, rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related health problems have also skyrocketed. Rates of Type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult-onset diabetes”) are soaring among kids. And this is a generation of people that may well die at a younger age than their parents, largely because of medical concerns associated with excess weight.

These facts have become commonplace to those of us who have been paying attention. Still, The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic serves as a clarion call to the country to take action — and fast — to combat this pernicious, complex problem that has myriad root causes.

Despite the familiar territory, this viewer gives the filmmakers points for framing the issue in a fresh, visually compelling way through astute story selection. The first episode recounts The Bogalusa Heart Study in Louisiana — a landmark investigation which found that cardiovascular disease can begin in childhood. And in the final installment we meet a Nashville mayor trying to help his city get healthy and a Latino community in Santa Ana, Calif., whose members spend years advocating for a play space for their children.

Bigger than individuals

Some critics (including those who have yet to watch the series) worry that The Weight of the Nation only fans fear, stereotypes fat folk, and doesn’t go after the real villain in the war against weight: the food and beverage industry. But from this critic’s perspective, the program doesn’t lay shame and blame at the feet of the overweight and obese people it features. On the contrary, it presents their struggles in a sympathetic and non-judgmental light, revealing how hard the body fights weight loss despite good intentions, and how current social, economic, and government systems sabotage Americans’ attempts to stay healthy.

A shopkeeper tells of parents bringing children in for highly-processed packaged snacks for breakfast.

Yes, there is the question of personal responsibility, and the films address physical inactivity and poor diet as key contributors to this problem. But there’s also healthy discussion of factors outside an individual’s control — including genetic makeup and evolutionary biology (we’re programmed for scarcity in a time of abundance), workplace changes, fast food marketing strategies, federal farm subsidies, changes in American food culture, and the ready availability of low-cost, high-calorie food.

The series also points a finger at the global corporations that are responsible for peddling the unhealthy, highly processed foods at the crux of the problem. It’s hard to imagine commercial television, hugely dependent on advertising by the makers of such food, taking on this topic in the first place.

To produce The Weight of the Nation, HBO teamed up with some major government agencies battling this spreading epidemic — the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health — as well as the child-focused philanthropy Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and health-care giant Kaiser Permanente.

The series doesn’t sugarcoat matters, but makes it clear that obesity-related health problems will become an unprecedented crisis with dire consequences if left unchecked. They’re also incredibly expensive: At the current rate of increase, obesity-related health-care costs are projected to exceed $300 billion by 2018.

In conjunction with the series, HBO also launched a massive social media campaign to spread the word about what can be done about these health problems, and reached out to more than 40,000 community-based organizations across the country.

Take that, obesity epidemic. And yet, as John Hoffman, executive producer of the series, noted in a discussion after a recent screening in Oakland: One of the first steps that might put a serious dent in this problem would be addressing government subsidies for commodity crops, which have made ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup cheap, accessible, and ubiquitous. He suggested changing the date of the Iowa caucus — a step that would give this farm state considerably less political power. (Such creative thinking didn’t make it into the series. But it’s food for thought — as is the hormonal defect hypothesis, detailed in a Newsweek story last week, which argues that refined sugars and grains are the major players in a problem that no amount of dieting and exercise could correct.)

Students at a school in New Orleans admire their new salad bar.

For kids’ sake

People can argue whether the root problem is corporations and their lobbyists, unfair government subsidies that benefit Big Ag, or cultural forces that keep many of us eating low-nutrient, high-calorie food. But most folks can agree on this much: It’s time to help kids get healthier.

One whole hour of the four-part series is focused on children. School lunch takes a hit, as does a food and beverage industry that preys on America’s most vulnerable population. As Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity notes in one episode, food marketing to children is “powerful, it’s pernicious, and it’s predatory.”

A highlight in the HBO effort is a half-hour film titled The Great Cafeteria Takeover, which runs on Wednesday. It chronicles the actions of a group of preteen reformers in New Orleans, known as the Rethinkers, who set about to improve lunch at their schools. Two other half-hour programs in the children’s series will debut in the fall.

Given the severity of obesity-related health problems and their rapid rise among kids, it looks like HBO won’t be the only broadcaster taking on a topic that has caught the attention of everyone from Michelle Obama to Ellen DeGeneres. The Hollywood Reporter recently announced that Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner and the producer behind An Inconvenient Truth, has teamed up with Katie Couric for a feature-length film about childhood obesity titled The Big Picture, which also promises to examine the impact of the food industry and government subsidies on children’s health. Stay tuned.

View the entire series online for free at the weighofthenation.hbo.com.

This post originally appeared on Grist and was republished on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

A Tale of Two Different PBS Programs: America Revealed’s Food Machine and Food Forward
Ten Teens Rocking the Food Revolution Scene
CANFIT Wants to Improve the Health of All America’s Youth

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Living Large May 16, 2012 at 11:35 am

This seems like a show to watch. I just cannot stand those reality shows, though, like “Biggest Loser.” As someone who has struggled with her weight nearly all of my adult life, I have no clue as to why someone would want to do something like that in such a public forum.


Sarah Henry May 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Agreed, LL. That show — and others like it — aren’t my cup of tea either, though I think the people who sign up for them are brave.


Sheryl May 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I caught the first segment and thought it was eye-opening and so well done. Can’t wait to see the rest of the series. It is so scary to see how prevalent obesity has become and all the related diseases that go along with it.


Sarah Henry May 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

And you may well find yourself a story out of the series, Sheryl. Especially since folks can watch it any time online — for free.


ruth pennebaker May 17, 2012 at 6:50 am

I can’t wait to watch this.

You know, years ago, someone we know from New Zealand commented that Americans abroad could always be picked out by their white walking shoes. These days, it’s even easier to find us: We’re the overweight travelers.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..Heroes and Other Funny People


Sarah Henry May 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

True, Ruth, but also plenty of other Western travelers (including my compatriots from Australia) are rapidly catching up.


MyKidsEatSquid May 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Sounds like a series worth watching. Around our house it’s simple steps we make to try to get our kids to eat healthy and stay active–smaller plates, plenty of exercise. I am concerned about the alarming childhood diabetes rates.


Sarah Henry May 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Research suggest, MKES, that behavioral changes are most effective in small steps, as people are more likely to stick with them, rather than reaching for grand, and often unattainable goals — like “I will lose “X” number of pounds in “Y” weeks.”


Jane Boursaw May 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm

HBO sent me a screener of this, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. So great to hear about projects like this. I wonder if part of it’s because there are just so.many.choices for food everywhere we go. I mean, it’s that virtual “kid in a candy shop” thing – you can get just about any food you want at any time of the day or night. Even here in Traverse City, our big mega Meijer’s store is open 24/7. There has to be some emphasis placed on control; otherwise, it’s so easy to default to OUT of control.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Got a Favorite Cheers Episode? Fans Pick Their Top Nine for New DVD


Sarah Henry May 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Point well taken, Jane, and as you’ll see when you have a chance to review the film, there are many factors — including the one you note above — that contribute to this conundrum.


merr May 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm

I was in the supermarket today and happened to need something in the frozen food case. Whoa – just about everything is processed, pre-prepared, with a ton of extra ingredients and who knows what they are?! But the thing is, these foods are so so so easy, and manufactured to taste “good” as in producing a desire for more (saw this on a 60 Minutes segment, about a lab that creates the artificial “natural” flavors). I would like to see how HBO handles the topic of obesity. They seem to do an incredible job on most everything they touch.


Sarah Henry May 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm

The old “craveability” issue, Merr, is what you’re highlighting here. It’s a tough one to work around: Cheap, mass produced food designed to tease taste buds into wanting more.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable May 23, 2012 at 7:41 pm

This sounds like it’s well done, but I have to wonder if people will see themselves in the show? I mean, I think most people – if they are – realize that they’re overweight, but unless it’s severe, they may not see themselves as “that bad.” What do you think?
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..17 Plants on One Square Foot of Land


Sarah Henry May 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm

This is a perspective that hasn’t been much discussed in relation to this series, Kris, but I think it’s worth exploring. Humans tend to tell themselves: “Well, they’re not talking about me.” Reminds me of that line: Denial is not just a river in Egypt.


Jeanine Barone May 28, 2012 at 8:26 am

Seems like a series I should check out. Definitely the problem with obesity is multi-fold, from manufacturers producing super-size products and those laden with fat, to our society that doesn’t provide adequate pedestrian and bicycle paths in our cities so that children and adults can get out and exercise safely.


Sarah Henry May 29, 2012 at 7:25 pm

This one is right up your alley, Jeanine. I’ll be interested to hear your nutritionist perspective, once you’ve had a chance to watch.


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