‘The Weight of the Nation,’ weighty
Heavy on facts but little we haven't heard before
May 14, 2012
HBO’s documentary series “The Weight of the Nation” is worthwhile, but watching it can be a chore. A combination of reporting on the causes of obesity in the U.S. and exhortations to eat better and exercise more, it could inspire viewers to try to improve both their own lifestyles and the public policies that encourage bad health choices. But too much of the series feels, looks and sounds familiar.
The premise of the series is that the country is experiencing an epidemic of obesity that has serious public-health consequences and that people can do something about this on both the micro and the macro level. Airing tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., it consists of four hours titled “Consequences,” “Choices,” “Children in Crisis” and “Challenges.” As the vagueness of the titles suggest, there is a fair amount of overlap among the episodes.
The first episode, focusing on the effects of obesity, scares us with statistics and visuals. As a nation, we’re simply getting fatter; a recent survey found that 68.8 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. The increased health risks include not only heart disease and diabetes but also such unexpected things as arthritis, asthma and dementia.
The sight of body parts taken from autopsies is probably more effective than the numbers. We see fatty deposits in arteries and an obese adult’s oversize heart. Doctors have recently discovered a new form of cirrhosis caused by excess fatty deposits in livers.
A recurrent theme throughout the episodes is that humans haven’t evolved to handle the ready availability of high-calorie foods. The second episode reports on lifestyle changes that can help.
Warning against both fasting and fad diets, the episode gives simple advice that unfortunately won’t be news to most viewers: set realistic goals, track your caloric intake, exercise. Among the depressing news is that dieters may have to limit their calories for the rest of their lives, that a single candy bar can outweigh a half hour of exercise and that fruit juice can be just as dangerous as a sugared soft drink.
The third episode, on children’s weight problems, provides even more alarming news. An expert says that this generation of American children may be the first in a hundred years to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Efforts at removing snack foods from school cafeterias and regulating the marketing of unhealthy foods to children are portrayed as ineffectual because of the political clout of the food industry. Fewer schools are providing gym class, often because principals want to concentrate on meeting new academic standards.
The fourth episode may be the most controversial. It suggests that the government’s heavy subsidizing of corn and soybeans has led to a reduction in the price of sweeteners and meat, both of which contribute to obesity. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables, which are mostly unsubsidized and are harder to farm and market using industrial methods, are becoming more expensive.
The episode also says that poor people may be more prone to obesity because they live in neighborhoods that lack supermarkets and green markets offering fruits and vegetables and also lack places for kids to play.
It praises programs that try to fight obesity, ending with inspiring montages of people participating in workplace health programs, riding on new bike paths and shopping at farmers’ markets.
Sometimes the documentarians seem a little credulous. They fail to question the assumptions that locally grown produce is significantly better than that shipped across the country, that kids offered vegetables in school will actually eat them and that bike paths will be used by enough people to justify the cost.
A lot of the visuals feel familiar, whether it’s the ominously grainy footage of fast-food commercials or the inspiring shots of the formerly obese going on power walks. Some of the talking heads wear out their welcome, making similar points over and over.
Since the show steps on the toes of many big advertisers, this is probably the kind of project that only HBO or PBS could present, and PBS would probably be pressured to run something giving agribusiness equal time. Although HBO subscribers won’t cancel the channel because of the series, it won’t win the channel any new subscribers either, so we should be thankful for the public service.
Besides, once we’re done eating our vegetables, we can always watch an episode of “Game of Thrones” for dessert.
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