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'Weight of the Nation' Is a Call to Action

In emphasizing the ways that the "food industry" does business, HBO's four-part series makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of obesity in America.

Weight of the Nation

Airtime: Monday, 8pm ET
Cast: Gerald Berenson, Kelly Brownell, Deborah Clegg, Francis Collins, Susan Combs, Elissa Epel, Thomas Farley, Anthony Iton, Peter Katzmarzyk, Shiriki Kumanyika, Eduardo Sanchez, Marlene Schwartz, Elsie Taveras, Margo Wootan
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: HBO
Air date: 2012-05-14
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"It's like I'm in some kind of prison." Asked to describe life as an obese person, more than one interviewee in Weight of the Nation emphasize their sense of isolation and limitation. They feel worried and judged, and some also feel they've been deceived, led to believe that their consumption of fatty chips and sugary cereals, sodas and juices too, not to mention TV and video games, is safe and even desirable, that such choices don't have deleterious consequences, either immediate or delayed. After all, since they were children, they've been exposed to slick commercial pitches that make Happy Meals look fun and Lucky Charms seem magically delicious.

That's not to say that overweight individuals have no other options, or that they see themselves only as victims. But in emphasizing the ways that the "food industry" (a monolithic term that encompasses multiple corporate and political parts) does business, HBO's four-part series makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of obesity in America. The series cuts between reporting and storytelling, expert talking heads and personal histories narrated by participants in research studies, in ad-hoc healthy eating groups, and in individual sagas (a couple deals with diabetes, twin brothers experiences, parents help their children to develop better habits, both eating and exercising). Its structure tends to be uneven and sometimes repetitive, showing a fondness for listing some common sense advice in colorful graphic displays ("Make sure your goals are realistic," "Keep your portions under control"), but it also makes a consistent basic argument: educate yourself and act on what you learn.

The first two segments, "Consequences" and "Choices" (premiering 14 May) make clear that both genetic and environmental factors influence weight. Many viewers will be familiar with the correlation between class and weight, that poor people tend to be more overweight, for a number of reasons (including food deserts), as well as the connections between obesity and other diseases, like liver disease, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes Many will also recognize the argument that, as New York University's Susan Yager, author of The Hundred Year Diet, puts it, "The diet industry has no reason to solve the problem," as it's apparently endlessly profitable to sell diet "secrets" and gimmicks.

In other words, while it seems obvious that obesity is affecting the national economy broadly and increasingly, with regard to health care costs, to employers as well as taxpayers, particular corporate interests have shorter term and more odious goals. (The series includes Congressional hearings where industry lobbyists testify alongside experts appearing in the film, followed by a title card revealing that Congress has not followed through on policing advertising, despite the urging of a report by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children.)

These interests make their case through lobbying and other means of affecting legislation. This means that, despite protests that Michelle Obama's Move It campaign is an infringement on individual freedoms, government is already involved in how people make food choices (subsidies, regulations on advertising and commerce, FDA labeling). Thomas Farley, New York City's Commissioner, argues, "The reason we have government in the first place is to solve problems collectively we can't solve individually."

Among these problems is the condition of young people, now and looking forward. The second two episodes, titled "Children in Crisis" and "Challenges" (15 May), look more closely at how young people are increasingly at risk. For one thing, as Harvard's Elsie Taveras worries, today's children are likely "the first generation of children who are going to have a short life expectancy than their parents." The geneticist and NIH director Francis Collins adds, "If you were told your child was at risk for cancer, that would get your attention. If you were told your child is at risk for some sort of brain disease, that would get your attention. Well, obesity ought to be on that list."

Collins means to scare you, but also to encourage you to feel empowered. The point is to absorb what you're told, to make use of it. So, when you and your children are exposed to "toxic advertising," which Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, descries as "powerful, pernicious, and predatory," you might think about how to read it and what's at stake for whom in it, before you pick up another Kit Kat or a Doritos Burrito. Marlene Schwartz, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, puts it bluntly: "Parents need to stop being undermined by the food industry."

"Challenges" focuses on how food is processed and sold, the emphasis on profits over wellbeing, on quantity over quality. Again, it repeats what you may have seen before in other recent "food" documentaries (for examples, the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., King Corn, The Apple Pushers). But in connecting the many parts of the crisis, the reduction in PE classes at schools, the increase in sedentary activities, the effects of stress and lack of sleep, the consequences of obesity for children (who most often become obese adults), as well as the results of corporate finagling, Weight of the Nation encourages viewers to feel responsible for their own lives and to make informed choices.

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