HBO's 'Weight of the Nation': A New Solution to an Old Problem?

"Weight of the Nation" documentary debuts tonight on HBO.

May 14, 2012, 9:05 AM

May 14, 2012— -- Obesity. We know the word. We know more than a third of Americans are obese. We know that the United States is facing an epidemic. We know more energy out than calories in is key to losing weight.

We know.

So, why after almost 30 years of Americans' weight ticking up the scale has it suddenly called for a national campaign to change?

Today, HBO is premiering its four-part series called "Weight of the Nation." A collaborative effort with the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine, the series focuses on different issues surrounding the epidemic: consequences, choices, children in crisis and challenges.

John Hoffman, vice president of HBO Documentary Films and the executive producer of "The Weight of the Nation," told National Public Radio the documentary is "not a piece of journalism" but instead "a piece of public health."

"We really are informing people about all the issues that pertain to the health and future of this country," Hoffman said on NPR's "Science Friday" last week. "So much as sending up as many flares as possible and really igniting a conversation. It's going to take a long time to turn this around."

Interesting facts from the documentary:

• One out of 5 of kids drink three or more sugar-sweeted beverages per day, accounting for an extra meal.

• Less than 1 percent of Americas meet the criteria for ideal cardiovascular health.

• One in 4 adults get no physical activity.

• Obesity costs American businesses $70 billion in lost productivity.

• Profit margin for soft drinks is 90 percent. Profit margin for produce is 10 percent.

In viewing the films, one thing that stands out is the attempt to change the conversation about obesity.

"If you were told that your child is at risk for cancer, that would get your attention. If you were told, well, your child is at risk for some sort of brain disease, that would get your attention," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, said in the documentary. "Well, obesity ought to be on that list.

"If we all don't take this as an urgent national priority, we are all ... individually and as a nation going to pay a really serious price," Collins said.

Keith Ayoob, the director for the Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who has not yet seen the film and was not involved in its making, disagrees.

"I believe motivation is going to solve it." Ayoob said. "What caused it doesn't matter. The question is, what's going to fix it? So often we look at the failures and try to figure out why. I look at the success and see what they have in common. When you look at the successful people, what do they do? They make it a bigger priority."

In an interview last week with Steven Colbert on "The Colbert Report," Collins attributed part of the problem to people's innate genetics.

"We are creatures with genes that are designed to try to help us survive through much of our history where calories were pretty hard to come by," he said. " We've been turned into these wonderful machines for finding calories and using them to put weight on," something that now works against us in today's culture and society.

Ayoob, who agreed with Collins on this point, said if "we recognize that's in our genetic code, we also have to recognize we need to deal with a different environment."

"We have to use more than our instincts, we have to use our head," he said. "If this documentary helps people to change their priorities and live a healthy lifestyle, then it would be worth it."

Highlighted throughout the four-part series is a need for restructuring and commitment to make health a priority at work, schools and in communities.

Nabholz, a construction company in Arkansas, is just one example highlighted in the series of ways businesses can improve employees' health.

The owner saw health costs rising and executed an overall health assessment of all Nabholz employees. After one year, the company has seen significant decreases among health costs, as well as double-digit drops in patients with prediabetes and high cholesterol. The company managed to save more than $600,000 annually.

Underlining the importance of children's being physically active, the documentary looks as the mostly sedentary lifestyles of most children today. According to the documentary, in the U.S. only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education.

But, by simply adding PE back into curriculum at a Texas school, a three-year survey found a cumulative improvement in overall fitness, and as an added bonus, a strong correlation with improvements in math and reading scores.

"We do need to design communities that promote walking ... work environments with healthy dining options. ... It needs to be an effort involving all sectors of the community," Howard Eisenson, the executive director for the diet and fitness center at Duke University, said.

Eisenson said we can't blame any individual sector for the growing problem.

"I think anything that informs and sensitizes people is liable to be helpful," he said. "It will be helpful if gets business makers, policy holders, educators, government agencies, food service, other stakeholders involved."

Research finds that a "7 to 10 percent weight loss ... can have profound impacts on your metabolic health," Hoffman said on NPR. "And we hope by sending out this message in these shows - that message is repeated - we hope that people will find some comfort and some confidence that that is a weight loss that they could attain."

The series beings tonight on HBO with parts one and two, and continues Tuesday with parts three and four. HBO also offers additional video "shorts," as well as tips and guidance online.

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