Weighin in on HBO’s "The Weight of the Nation"

You might have heard of the documentary dealing with the obesity epidemic that aired on HBO this week called “The Weight of the Nation“. It was made in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health, along with the Kaiser Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. So, just getting that many government, private and charitable minds together to complete and produce such a comprehensive project on a controversial topic alone is a big deal.
I first read about the project about a week ago, and there seemed to be quite a lot of criticism (more sources at the bottom of that link) of the project after it was previewed. The criticism focuses on a couple of points. First, that overweight and obese people can be healthy, and the sizeism debate. Additionally, critics note that that focusing on an individual’s weight or status as overweight or obese only furthers the argument that the answer to the predicament is through personal responsibility of that person, rather than on the food industry.

I watched the final part of the documentary, and I find the first criticism completely unfounded. While some overweight and obese people can be healthy and show no characteristics typical to others in that group such as elevated blood pressure, fatty liver, or diabetes, the majority of overweight and obese people do have health problems that will undoubtedly lead to chronic disease and shorten their lives (for the record, I am considered overweight by my BMI and there’s room for improvement in my bloodwork results, so I’m not pointing fingers at everyone else here, I fall into this category, too).

Personally, I thought the movie was a pretty realistic reflection of our country. People know that eating too much food and not being active can lead to being overweight or obese, but its much more complicated than that. I know people who basically say “I don’t know where to start”, heck, I’ve said that to myself. There is so much conflicting information on nutrition coming from seemingly expert sources. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and I can tell you that my childhood was filled with things like Diet Coke, fat free cheese, turkey bacon and Snackwell’s cookies. In the 80s, we thought we were supposed to shun things like red meat and full fat dairy because that’s what the common knowledge was at the time. Only that advice has backfired horribly, it seems. We happily bought the low-fat, no-fat versions of our favorite foods, thinking we were making good choices, only to realize later that those foods have exponentially more salt and sugar in them to make up for the lack of natural fat. I can’t blame the food industry for that in a general sense. They produced goods that people thought they wanted to buy. (I do think the food industry needs taken to task for false advertising and misleading “health” claims on packaging, as well as its marketing to children).
You might know that through my job, I look at the cost of healthcare as it affects our state and federal government, and it’s no shocker that things are going to get real ugly if we don’t do something to swing the tide against chronic disease back in the other direction. I once heard it described as an avalanche that you can hear rumbling and coming, but you have no idea how big it is and how deep you’ll be buried.

So what are we supposed to do? Follow at low fat diet? Low carb? The Mediterranean diet? I don’t have the answers for that one. If I did, I’d be rich, I think. What I can tell you on this blog is what I can live with and what is working (as in, I’m in progress…) for me. I’m not a professional dietitian or nutritionist. But, when I watch documentaries like this one, or when I watched Food, Inc., or when I read Michael Pollan’s books,  or read Marion Nestle’s blog, I feel like I have something to say. A lot of it, actually.

photo credit: vitaminwater.com

photo credit: wikipedia

Artificially colored and sweetened substance versus real citrus. Which one looks more appetizing? Which one do you think is cheaper by volume?
photo credit: eatdrinkbetter.com

A quick and easy meal. Greasy versus FRESH!

photo credit: yoplait.com


photo credit: wallpaper4me.com

You must be joking versus fresh blueberries. So sweet!

What has been the most sane path for me is to just try and eat less processed food. The less processed the better. I figure these chronic diseases didn’t exist when my grandparents were growing up, so I try to eat the way people might have eaten in their day. I don’t do it strictly everyday. The hubs and I go out for wings and beer occassionally, or I might attend a family cookout and partake of what is offered. But, the key is to do that on special occassions. Don’t make a habbit of it. I enjoy cooking, so making things from scratch isn’t a burden, it’s fun. Sometimes I don’t have time, and I plan accordingly to have something in the crock-pot or have something in the freezer I can just throw in the oven like a casserole or stuffed shells. And I still can do more. I don’t have all the answers, but feel like I’m in control of my health these days. I’ve at least stopped gaining a few pounds every year like it was something normal. It’s just those pesky 5 to 8 last pounds that I can’t seem to get rid of… Although, I didn’t get to this point overnight. It’s been about 3 or 4 years since I really started to pay close attention to what I was eating and where it was coming from. Now, I am so happy that I can look at some junk food and not feel the slightest temptation (although, not all of it–don’t wave NutterButters at me, I can’t stop myself). But more importantly, when I see things like what’s pictured on the right above, my mouth waters. I’ll take a fresh caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and really good mozarella and olive oil any day of the week over an extra value meal.

The second criticism, that the food industry isn’t really held accountable, is at least not totally missing the mark. The documentary does address it some in the “Children in Crisis” portion of the film, in the discussion of marketing food to children. But that is about it. That information was very powerful to me, that studies have made the connection between food advertising directed at children and the types of food that they want to and will eat. I don’t have any children of my own, but I can at least imagine the struggle of getting a child to eat something foreign and unknown such as a vegetable she might not have been exposed to before. There is this evidence out there, and the food industry basically dug in it’s heels and balked at the idea that it needed to revamp its advertising in light of these facts. The fourth segment “Challenges” draws a nice parallel in that a generation ago, cigarettes and smoking were considered a part of society, and we look back on those days with the stark contrast of today with limited advertising of those items and outright bans on their use in most public places. Someday, we will hopefully look back on this obesity epidemic and see that a harmful product was being sold, consumed and marketed to and by all of us, and eventually we collectively took necessary steps to minimize its harmful effects on our most vulnerable citizens, children and the poor.

Anyway, I guess my point is, I think everyone should watch the documentary. It’s free here. It is over four hours long, but after the first part, I was hooked. You could tackle it in a week, watching one part each night (after you eat a healthy dinner and go for a walk…) No adult likes to be told what to do, especially what to eat, so that’s not what I am trying to do. But I’m hoping if enough people watch the documentary and form their own opinions about it, we can keep this discussion going about how we can avoid this economic and medical disaster barrelling very quickly down the mountain toward us.


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