'The Weight of the Nation' review: Obesity crisis. The Weight of the Nation: Documentary series. Part 1, "Consequences," and Part 2, "Choices," at 8 p. Mon. Part 3, "Children in Crisis" and Part 4, "Challenges," at 8 p.
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We've all seen the TV news reports on obesity in the United States, fresh statistics from the latest study, read with professional detachment, while images of pudgy bodies cross the screen, their faces blurred or heads just out of the camera frame. It's been going on for years, as much a staple of TV news as the weather report. Unlike the weather, though, there is a lot Americans can do about weight problems, and every minute we delay is not only critical but both deadly and expensive - expensive as in billions of dollars taken from the pockets of taxpayers and businesses.
Obesity is an epidemic and perhaps America's biggest health problem. That's the message pounded home with singular effectiveness in HBO's four-part, multidisciplinary documentary "The Weight of the Nation. " Produced by Sheila Nevins and John Hoffman. "Weight" pulls no punches, spares neither the multibillion-dollar food and advertising industries nor public officials for not only failing to fix the problem but actually making it worse, and essentially writes a prescription for the nation's health and economic future that we ignore to our peril. "This is preventable," says Jack Shonkoff of Harvard's Center on the Developing Child. one of the many medical experts participating in the film. "This is not one of those unfortunate acts of nature that we just have to accept as reality.
This is not the product of a tsunami. How fat are we? Plenty. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight and one-third are obese, while one-third of our children and adolescents are overweight and 18 percent are obese. Obesity contributes to five of the 10 leading causes of death in America, costs business more than $73 billion a year, adds $150 billion to health costs now and may hit $300 billion by 2018. How did we get this way? Beginning in the late 20th century, we moved to a food industry based on what Dr.
Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity calls "a cheap-food model. " The cheapest food is also the least healthy.
The category not only includes all kinds of packaged, processed foods, but, of course, fast food offerings, which have become the plaque-building lifeblood of the American diet. The most tragic victims of the nation's weight epidemic are kids, who are, as Brownell puts it, "besieged" by advertising from an industry that wants them to eat more. He labels food marketing to children as "powerful, pernicious and predatory. Some 40 to 50 percent of food eaten by kids is consumed at school, and school cafeterias, which have to be financially self-sufficient, push unhealthy, packaged food at kids. And then there are those sodas. One-fourth of American teens drink an average of four sodas a day, which is the equivalent of an entire extra meal in terms of calories.
Sodas, as well as energy drinks and flavored water, have no nutritional value and are often loaded with sugar. With a 90 percent profit margin on their products, the soft drink industry can spend millions on hyperactive advertising. Juice? Sounds great, except that juice isn't anywhere near as healthy as it's cracked up to be because it contains a lot of sugar and the most healthful part of the fruit itself - the fiber - has been filtered out.
It's not just about how fat your kids are but what their weight issues portend for their futures. A landmark study in Bogalusa, La. launched 40 years ago, followed overweight kids through adulthood to monitor their health. The study was key in proving that cardiovascular disease begins in childhood. Obese kids today are already beset with the health problems facing obese 25-year-olds.
Just recently, a new study found that type 2 diabetes, the variety associated with obesity, has started cropping up at an alarming rate in kids. The situation is only exacerbated by the increasing lack of activity in American lives, but especially in kids, who become hooked at an early age on TV, computers and social media.
Even if children and teens could be motivated to engage in some kind of physical activity, many schools have eliminated gym classes, and poor neighborhoods often lack any kind of park area for kids to play in. $30 billion a year. Susan Combs, Texas comptroller of public accounts, is one public official who understands the severity of the crisis. Texas has the sixth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country and ranks as the nation's 12th "fattest" state, she says. By 2025, Combs estimates that private employers in Texas will incur an additional $30 billion a year in health care costs because of the current childhood obesity epidemic and that the state will face a "productivity crisis" as well.
Combs engineered a grant program called Texas Fitness Now in an effort to get kids off their butts. A three-year survey of schools that added fitness programs through TFN shows an overall improvement in fitness, as well as "a strong correlation" to better math and reading skills. Should you think things couldn't be all that bad, consider that today's adults may make up the first generation in U. history whose children will have an average life expectancy lower than their own.
"Weight of the Nation" is filled with provocative and sometimes scary information. But the biggest take-away in the series is that the nation's weight crisis can be reversed. So, for that matter, can an individual's weight crisis. The commercial diet industry won't be any happier about the HBO series than the food industry. In the second part of the series, "Choices," Susan Yager. author of "The Hundred Year Diet," says bluntly: "The diet industry has no reason to solve the problem. Solving the problem puts them out of business.
So what's an overweight person to do? First of all, know that losing the weight is relatively easy, believe it or not.
The hard part is that you have to change your lifestyle for the rest of your life if you want to keep it off. To lose weight, set realistic goals for yourself, get support from others who are trying to lose, plan your meals and exercise portion control, and monitor your caloric intake.
When it comes to weight, mind really does matter, says Dr. Elissa Epel of UCSF, one of several institutions to have studied what is termed "mindful eating" - paying attention to what and when you eat, learning to make choices based on actual hunger and learning to value the quality of your food, not just how much of it you're consuming while watching television. Mindful eating. Mindful eating is one way to address, well, several elephants in the room, including the fact that the food industry is heavily subsidized to produce foods that aren't all that healthy for you.
What that means is that those foods - wheat, sugar, soy and corn - are not only very abundant but also that their cost in the checkout line is artificially low, while fruits and vegetables, which are not directly subsidized and make up only about 3 percent of the planted cropland in the United States, are more expensive. In other words, the American taxpayer is shelling out billions of dollars to support the production of food whose ready availability and low price will end up costing us billions more in added health care expense in the future. From an individual point of view, informed consumers can be mindful of which foods they choose to eat and which they don't. But what about all those packages in the supermarket aisles trumpeting the health benefits of the food they contain? Some of those claims may be true, others only relatively so, but who is really checking? The food industry itself, which is largely self-regulating. Food companies "define what is deemed to be unhealthy," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Proposal killed.
Recently, an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketing to Children, comprising the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proposed voluntary nutritional guidelines for the food industry, which would have been put forth by the FTC. The proposal was successfully torpedoed by the corporate food industry and, according to the FTC chairman, is effectively dead. But that doesn't mean the healthy-food advocates are ready to throw in the napkin. To some of the participants in the HBO documentary, the battle for a healthier diet and an increase in public awareness of the physical and financial costs of our national weight crisis aren't dissimilar to the decades-long battle against the tobacco industry. Weighty politics. To some extent, the weight epidemic has been politicized by the debate over national health care, which continues to play a big role in the current presidential race. While first lady and White House gardener Michelle Obama makes an appearance in "The Weight of the Nation," the issues at stake are far bigger than politics.
Politicians on one side of the aisle may be more in favor of national health care than others, while other politicians are beholden, if not under the thumb, of the food industry. Regardless of whether "Obamacare" is repealed or modified, Americans are doomed to pay even more for the cost of treating obesity-related illness if the weight epidemic is not addressed. And unless we're willing to respond to the timely wake-up call that is "The Weight of the Nation," many of us - and many of our children - will pay with their lives. The effective way to lose weight. -- Take small steps in your diet.
-- Get support from others who are trying to lose weight. -- Focus on portion control.