'Weight of the Nation' documentary explores costs of obesity

9:25 AM, Apr 30, 2012   |    comments
Joe Culpepper has his waist measured in a scene from the documentary 'The Weight of the Nation.'/USA TODAY
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By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

John Hoffman isn't a doctor. He doesn't even play one on TV.

Joe Culpepper has his waist measured in a scene from the documentary 'The Weight of the Nation.'

But come May 14, he'll unveil a diagnosis, of sorts, for dealing with obesity as executive producer of The Weight of the Nation, a new four-part HBO documentary.

The production, done in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine, which provides independent advice on health, features dozens of top experts exploring the causes and solutions for obesity in the USA.

"The aim is to sound a very loud alarm - to say, we have enough evidence about the terrible toll obesity is exacting on individuals, our communities and our society," Hoffman says. "The consequences of not acting, boldly, systemically and decisively, are dire."

Excess weight is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and a host of other illnesses. The Weight of the Nation premieres with two back-to-back one-hour shows May 14 and two more May 15, beginning at 8 p.m. ET/PT each night. It has a companion book by the same name.

The documentary, which also involved the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, is being released in conjunction with a two-day CDC meeting, also called Weight of the Nation, May 7-8 in Washington, D.C. Hoffman offers his thoughts on the series and its message in this conversation:

Q: What is it going to take to reverse the obesity epidemic?

A: The obesity epidemic is not a natural disaster that we can't do anything about. This national crisis is completely preventable.

We live in a world where there's an abundance of cheap calories, and we have foods high in sugar and fat at arm's reach at almost all times.

Big decisions made by the food industry, agriculture and government have a huge impact on the little decisions we make about what we reach for when we're hungry and how long we sit at our desks and in our cars.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

A: Over the course of human evolution, there has never been any reason to limit our food intake. In fact, it's the opposite. Because we need food to survive, we are genetically programmed to love it. There may be as many as 100 genes that favor food-seeking behavior. And we evolved a system to favor fat deposition as a buffer against times of scarcity. ... But in a world full of burger joints, pizza parlors and vending machines, our biological imperative to store fat whenever we can may instead pose a threat to our survival.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and make a change, what would it be?

A: Remove all sugared beverages from our diet. Our bodies are not adapted for that rush of liquid calories. It's clear they're driving a lot of obesity and a contributor to diabetes.

Q: What else did you learn?

A: Even after 10 years of maintaining a significant weight loss, the body doesn't readjust. Your brain still thinks you're in a state of deprivation, and it manipulates your body in ways you don't even notice: You're hungrier, less easily satisfied, and more frequently tempted by sweet and fatty foods; you are less inclined to exercise.

Losing weight and keeping it off requires a renovation of your entire life for the remainder of your life.

Q: What actions/policies would help the most?

A: We need to work together to make some big changes to the systems that govern the food we grow; the economies that drive the food we manufacture; the policies that regulate what we market and serve, particularly to kids; the values we place on the overall quality of the schools to which we send our children; the design of our communities, parks and roads so they promote health; and the perspective of our health care system so that it's focused on preventing illness from happening, rather than just treating it once it develops.

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