The Weight of the Nation is a 4-part 2012 documentary, free to watch on HBO and youtube, detailing the health and policy implications of skyrocketing obesity in American adults and children. Part 1 looks in graphic detail at the health consequences of obesity, complete with an examination of post-mortem hearts from normal and overweight individuals, and close-ups of diabetic foot lesions. Part 2 looks at weight loss methods and profiles weight loss success stories. Part 3 looks at the obesity crisis in children, and Part 4 examines the general psychological and physiological triggers for overeating: our hunter gatherer stomachs have not caught up with the first world environment of food excess, and we sit around staring at screens while our ancient ancestors were scrambling up trees and fleeing from wolves. This last segment also pushes fruits and vegetables as a weight loss boon (even though neither makes you lose weight) going so far as to suggest corn and soy stop being subsidized “so broccoli can be on an even playing field.” One farmer “guarantees” people will buy broccoli by the boatload if it were cheaper (for the record, broccoli is already cheap- I can buy a a huge bag of florets for $5 at Costco, frozen florets are even cheaper).
While interesting to watch, this is a “just okay” documentary. Often the most engrossing parts of the films are the quirky obesity experts who deliberate the issue. It’s also very long- it took me days to get through all four parts- and different experts in different sections contradict one another. For example, in Part 1 we’re told that a calorie is a calorie, but in part 3, childhood obesity is blamed on “unhealthy food” including the ever-evil corn and soy (predictably we see a “teaching breakfast” where junk food saturated children are exposed to fruits and vegetables). In part 2 we are told that exercise is ineffective for weight loss, yet in Part 3 the lack of a federal gym requirement is faulted for children’s expanding waistlines. There are also a few assertions I’m not sure are true, or at least have not been definitively proven. One claim is that two people of identical weight and height will have different caloric maintenance levels if one person started out at a heavier weight. This doesn’t make sense to me and I’d like to know how the studies concluding this were conducted, because self-reporting of food intake is notoriously inaccurate, particularly in people who have a tendency to overeat. In fact there’s a TV series based on this phenomena, the BBC Secret Eaters (which is available on youtube if you’re interested).
The Weight of the Nation delves into one facet of obesity I’d never considered: there is a lot of profit made off the obese, and not much financial incentive to solve obesity. The care for obesity related diabetes alone reaps billions for the healthcare industry; the diet industry rakes in billions, and the food industry would lose billions if people ate less. That’s a lot of billions resting on the status quo! So while we may give lip service to solving the crisis, who, beyond the individual, would actually benefit from doing so?
Even more sobering, many of the obesity experts and policy makers featured in the film are overweight themselves. For example, the eminently intelligent and thoughtful Kelly Brownell appears to be morbidly obese. You have to ask yourself: if the best educated and most aware of the risks can’t manage to stay within a normal weight range, what hope is there for the rest of us? This dovetails with my theory that your average person simply cannot not be overweight in an environment of food excess. We’re biologically programmed to eat, eat some more, and maybe more on top of that!
By the conventional wisdom presented in this documentary, my own children should be overweight. Except for the occasional bite of lettuce they don’t eat vegetables (yes, I’ve tried, a lot!); only a few like fruit. They eat much maligned kid foods like chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza, potato chips, and fruit juice. They’re not athletic in the least and spend too much time on video games and TV. But not only are they not overweight, they’re slightly underweight or on the low end of normal. Even my oldest daughter, who gained weight when she started corticosteroids, is on the low end of normal BMI.
I have no food rules and never limit how much of what they can take. They don’t even have to eat meals if they don’t feel like it, or can opt for something different from what I’ve cooked. The only real rule is “no wasting.” There are a few foods I never buy- like soda or heavily processed foods- but there is plenty of junk and borderline junk in the house. And after packing healthy lunches for much of last school year only to have it returned home uneaten and the kids starving, I gave up and began packing foods that fly in the face of new USDA school lunch guidelines.
One thing I’ve noticed with my children is that, for whatever reason, they are amazingly good at self regulating food intake. For instance they love the huge, decadent muffins from Costco but will only eat a fourth at a time.
I normally don’t buy candy but we have a box of Hershey bars in the house. After a month, and between 7 children, it’s only half gone. When I do try to get them to sit down for dinner they take a few bites, announce they’re full and leap up from the table. This is maddening when I have fantasies of a pleasant sit down meal with my kids, but I guess it’s good for their health and future weight. As for why they are like this, I wish I knew; then I could share my secret with all the parents out there. Perhaps they are genetically predisposed to have small appetites because as much as I love food, I can only eat a little bit at a time unless I make a conscious effort to stuff myself. Maybe my complete lack of food rules allows them to be “in touch” with their true hunger signals. But I really don’t know.
As far as the documentary, if you have five hours to spare I definitely recommend it though it’s not the best food documentary I’ve seen. It does come with some fascinating scenes (like when cardiologists illustrate heart disease with actual human hearts) and people, both those struggling with their weight and the clinicians trying to help them.