Review: The Weight of the Nation

Last week, I watched HBO’s mini-series The Weight of the Nation. I found this to be a very thought-provoking documentary, but it fell short in some important ways.

The first part of the four-part miniseries, Consequences, is probably the slowest. Focusing on the health risks of obesity, this episode mostly features doctors and other medical professionals addressing both well-known health issues like heart disease and diabetes and some lesser-known conditions like cirrhosis and kidney issues. The episode also follows the links in diseases from childhood to adulthood, emphasizing that the road to problems starts early. Class is also discussed, with obesity higher among lower-class individuals, but growing at all levels. The episode was very informative, but didactic and preachy. Lack of personal stories made this the least engaging part of the series, and it was a curious choice for a lead-off episode.

Episode 2, Choices, improves upon the series with stories and discussions of individuals taking different approaches to losing weight. The focus, with the exception of a segment on gastric bypass surgery, is on individuals who have had some success managing their weight through small, achievable goals.  I particularly enjoyed the section on mindful eating. While I’d heard of this before, I’d never connected the idea of meditating before eating to control appetite and lessen stress.

While episode 2 was inspiring, episode 3–Children in Crisis–inspired anger. This episode focused on children and weight issues. The documentary carries a not-so-subtle agenda, pushing increasing regulation/restrictions on the advertising of junk food to children. While I’m not necessarily opposed to this, I think the episode overlooks the role of parents. Over and over again in the episode, we see well-meaning parents who are clearly not on the ball about what’s going on in their childrens’ lives and diets. Parents seem completely unaware of what children are eating for lunch–we see children grabbing disgusting, pre-packaged lunches and full-sized bottles of sugary sports drinks, and the image is juxtaposed with statistics saying that nearly 90% of parents think school lunches are “healthy” or “somewhat healthy.” At home, we see parent after parent giving their kids juice drinks, which can be just as sugary and calorie-laden as soft drinks. Most infuriatingly, we are told that only about 10% of parents actually seek medical help for an obese child. One parent tells us: “My daughter has a computer and a television and she eats in front of the computer and the television… And that could be my fault.”

Could better regulation of school lunches and advertising bring about change? Sure. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for parents taking responsibility for their children, and I think this episode did not emphasize that enough. At least where I grew up, school districts sent the lunch menu home to parents. At the very least, parents should be asking their kids what kind of food they’re getting. And if you don’t like the answer, pack your kid a sandwich, buy something at the supermarket, do something to bring about change yourself. Changing the demand for gross school lunches may be the best weapon parent/consumers have in changing the supply.

Episode 4, Challenges, ends the series with more discussion on the roots of the obesity epidemic, and finally gets around to policy issues. There is a discussion of the farm industry and subsidies for products like corn, which help keep meat and corn-syrup-laden drinks priced artificially low. Meanwhile, vegetable farmers who are not subsidized struggle to get food to market and to table. Portion sizing also finally makes it into the discussion. It’s unsurprising to hear that as our food gets bigger, so do we. I was unable to finish the last chapter of this episode, though, as the streaming video version of the file was difficult to start and stop. After dealing with freezing/buffering for the first 3.5 hours of the series, I gave up on the last part of the final episode.

Overall, parts of The Weight of the Nation were really nicely done, but the series was uneven. I’d say part 3 is a must-see, as childhood obesity should be an issue of some concern for everyone. Part 4 is also worth watching (assuming you can make it through the technical issues) because it delves further into root causes. Part 2 will likely be of interest to those interested in losing weight–I found it engaging but not overly relatable from the perspective of someone who is already living a healthy lifestyle. Part 1 is worth watching only if you’re into science and statistics. I’d also approach the entire series with a healthy dose of skepticism about the overarching message that more regulation is the primary ingredient in solving the obesity epidemic. There are certainly areas that should be regulated–I’m a big fan of things like posting calorie counts on menus and raising nutritional standards for school lunches–but personal responsibility cannot be undersold. I also think the series does a good a job of demonizing big farming and soda companies, but lets the meat industry and the alcohol industry off the hook. Education is probably a better tool for fighting obesity than regulation. This series is a starting point, but not the end of the discussion. Take its message to heart, then do your own research.

*The Weight of the Nation is available online and can be streamed free-of-charge from the series web site.


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