I believe that HBO’s Weight of the Nation documentary is a good film that is worth watching. As a web producer, I couldn’t help but notice the well-produced and well-designed website for the film on hbo.com. It is full of information, promotional items for the film, and cleverly leveraged social media.
The film is divided into four parts: Consequences, Choices, Children in Crisis, and Challenges. Mostly it is high on emotions, gives plenty of statistics, and short on solutions.
“Challenges” were full of statistics and vignettes about obese people and their obesity-related health problems. There are some nice show and compare involving healthy and diseased hearts from cadavers. The good news here is that even if you reduce your weight by 10%, you can bring about plenty of physical and metabolic benefits. There is no discussion of why there are differences between countries in rate of obesity, interestingly. It is pretty good at explaining what diabetes is and showing real people who suffer loss of limbs as a result of diabetes. However, it still ultimately measures obesity through BMI, which is actually a terrible measure of health. I was at 24.5 BMI at the beginning of this year and while considered to be normal BMI and not overweight, I definitely was not healthy!
In particular and disappointingly, the film presents some pretty depressing information without presenting the full truth. For example, in “Choices,” it is stated that if you have achieved a normal weight by dieting you have to eat less than those who weigh the same naturally (Is this a metabolic benefit as it is referred to in Part 1?). That, depressingly, may be true for someone who crash dieted or yo-yo dieted (which is bad for you but not mentioned as such), but it is not true for someone who lost their weight healthily and slowly (safely at about 1% of body weight per week or about 2 lbs per week) through lifestyle change. There are benefits to working out and gaining muscle and yet none of that is mentioned. It completely ignores how it is possible to change your metabolic rate through building muscle. In fact, it emphasized a bit too much about how you will not lose as much weight through exercise as through diet. While it does mention that exercise helps you to replace the opiates in the brain that is created by food, it does not mention why exercise is such an important part of keeping the weight off. It criticized reality TV show The Biggest Loser for focusing on exercise instead of the dangerous and drastic weight loss that is difficult to maintain. It completely skips over the actual harm of yo-yo dietingIn addition, I think it doesn’t properly explore the problems with bariatric surgery and its consequences. I felt that the information presented on what the body does is not very informative and sparse compared to what I have learned on my own through my own journey and all the readings I have done in the past 4 months.
In “Children in Crisis,” it talks about the problem with children and predatory food marketing. It is hard to watch children suffer, and looking at the whole school lunches mess makes me want to cut cable and homeschool my children. Clearly there are systematic problems (industrial era food system, food marketing, bad school lunches, etc.) but the only way to improve your situation is all on the individual. This is arguably the best part of the documentary series and all parents should watch this. The film mentions that lack of physical education and how parents are not letting their kids have unsupervised play as contributing factors, but does not offer any solution to deal with that. The film also chose to ignore the contributing factor of the culture around cooking (the lack there of) and eating (too fast). Sadly, beyond presenting the work done by certain programs to help children and the walking school bus, it really doesn’t seem to be very helpful. This is why I made learning about nutrition and becoming a better cook a high priority when I became a mother. I want to make my children’s food and be closely involved in their health and growth.
“Challenges” attempts to bring the discussion back to systematic contributors to the problem of obesity in this country. It talks about the profit-hungry food industry, the government subsidy, food policies, corporate power, community design, lack of parks, food deserts, etc. as the blame for the obesity problem. While obesity levels may be rising in other countries, there are plenty of other countries where obesity levels are much lower and that is not at all explored. There are some possible solutions that are lightly traced, while they are at it individual knowledge and responsibility are not presented as the solution to such a big problem, yet the paradox is that this problem will not be solved without individual action.
I found the action items presented on the website to be a bit limited, at least until you connect with Facebook. After you connect via social media to promote the film and website, the website will generate a very sizable list of action items, which is good. The film itself doesn’t work quite as well without the website in terms of actionability. There are 83 action items presented on the website, and I discovered that I am already doing 66 of them. As for me, I think the film is worth watching but I definitely recommend going through the website as well to get the full benefit. I will probably read the companion book just to make sure I get the full picture.