Weighing In on “Weight of the Nation”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 29, 2012

Just before the holiday weekend I finally finished viewing all four installments of the HBO documentary on obesity, “Weight of the Nation.”

I’d been contacted by one of the show’s producers months before and was eagerly anticipating the show’s debut.  So I was surprised to encounter so much negative feedback about it before I watched.  One friend of mine pronounced the show “boring,” particularly the first episode on “Consequences,” and some TLT readers told me they were disappointed with the lack of meaningful solutions offered.  Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon (who originally refused to watch the show on principle) strongly criticized the documentary in “Uncle Sam and HBO Team Up for Fat Shaming, Avoiding Politics,” as did the Crunk Feminist writer ”sheridf,” in “The Wait of the Nation.”  [Hat tip to Dana Woldow for pointing me to the latter.]  And here’s a good round-up of many more critiques of the show.

It seems that a lot of commentators took issue with the very premise of “Weight of the Nation” — an examination of weight and obesity —  by equating it with “bullying,” ”weight-shaming” or just  plain being “mean.“   One writer (who felt justified in critiquing the show even before watching it) likened the show’s focus on obesity to encouraging racial or class discrimination:

The real message of all the hand-wringing is not that obesity is a risk for health and the GDP. It’s that fat is a cultural signifier: Just as swarthy skin and accents marked the lower classes 100 years ago, today we identify the Other by waistlines and thigh bulges. And that’s what you’ll be seeing on HBO this week.

But I feel this particular attack on the show was entirely unjustified.  Rather than enforcing negative stereotypes that “fat people are just lazy and lack willpower,” I thought the interviews with overweight or obese individuals were respectful, dignified and gave needed human faces and voices to what sometimes feels like an abstract, statistical issue.   Personally, I was left with only greater compassion for those adversely affected by this complex problem, with roots at both the individual and the societal level.

“Fat stigma” aside, other critics felt the focus on obesity — rather than just health generally — provided political cover for those fueling the crisis.  As Michele Simon put it:

Continuing to focus on obesity is problematic for numerous reasons. As this program painfully demonstrates, it’s too easy to place the blame on individuals, to make them the sole locus of change instead of fixing the systemic problems with our food system. Also, exercise is a powerful and safe distraction for policymakers.

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!

Instead of talking body size, (don’t thin people get sick?) let’s garner the political power we need to focus squarely on fixing the food system, which is admittedly more complex than calories in, calories out but is also more compassionate.

But I was actually pleasantly surprised that the documentary didn’t just gloss over the role of Big Food and its stronghold on our nation’s politicians and food policies, as I feared it might.

For example, as someone who has written extensively about governmental efforts to rein in the advertising of junk food to children, I found it fascinating (in a perverse sort of way) to watch Congressional hearings I’d only read about, in which Republican lawmakers put the kibosh on purely voluntary reforms in this area.  Similarly, the show offered a reasonably good primer on the role of agricultural subsidies in distorting our food supply and the outsized power of huge agribusiness companies.  In both cases, the message to any viewer was clear:  food companies do not have your (or your kids’) best interests at heart and they will do whatever is necessary to preserve profits, even at the expense of our nation’s health.

At the same time, I thought the show’s focus on obesity at the individual/local community level had its own value.    Yes, we certainly do need to fix large scale flaws in our food system, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore individuals trying to effectuate their own change.  For example, observing the incredible vigilance required to maintain a healthy weight after weight loss (as shown by the two women on the National Weight Control Registry) will likely serve as both a cautionary tale for those yet to gain excess weight and be instructive for those struggling to maintain their weight after a diet.  (For more on the science of weight maintenance, see my post “The Latest Science on Obesity  - and Why Early Childhood Intervention is Critical“).  Meanwhile, many viewers seeking to improve their own health might also benefit from the research presented on “mindful eating” and the chemical role of stress in overeating.  And I thought it was useful to see local efforts (both in workplaces and cities) which have been successful in improving health so that interested viewers can replicate those efforts more widely.

So overall I felt the documentary did a good job of providing information and advice for the individual viewer and giving at least a broad strokes outline of the societal and political underpinnings of this public health crisis.  But the show’s greatest weakness, in my opinion, was the lack of any real public policy solutions to address the latter.

For example, the final installment of the show ended with rosy but vague predictions that obesogenic foods will someday be viewed as we now view cigarettes — and that food companies will be “part of the solution.”  Yet, to date, industry efforts at self-regulation have been ineffectual and Big Food has repeatedly and successfully blocked any actual regulation of its activities.  (See “Big Food’s Money vs. Children’s Health:  Guess Which Wins?“).   So having already been shown by the filmakers the food industry’s entrenched power and its widespread predatory practices, the viewer is left scratching his or her head.  What on earth is going to account for the food industry’s supposed future role as promoter of good health?  On that critical question, I thought “Weight of the Nation” proved to be very much a lightweight.

So, what did you think of the show?  I’d love to hear your views about it in a comment below.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rich Gabrielli May 29, 2012 at 10:53 am

I thought it was very well done! It had a lot of great information and was eye opening in may respects. The website has all the episodes, and a lot of other good information. Some people are always going to complain about something and they are easy to ignore.

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Jody Mason May 29, 2012 at 10:56 am

I agree with your assessment. While I was disappointed that there was not as much emphasis placed on a plant-based diet for nutrition and health, I do think this was a huge step for HBO programming.
And I don’t think it was bullying to address the obesity epidemic in America, for the sake of our nation’s physical and economic health.
Yes, I might have done some things differently in the documentary (Big Food/Ag, Organic, etc), but this is a worthwhile issue to explore from any angle.

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Tammy May 29, 2012 at 11:19 am

I totally agree with your whole sumation of the show! I was impressed with the show. I did not find it boring but rather found it interesting and intriguing. I have always been a healthy eater and was fortunate to grow up in a home that taught me about food and health at a young age, which I in turn have passed on to my son and husband. It does make you realize that not everyone has the opportunity to learn about food and the effects on your body. It was enlightening to learn just how hard it is for certain communites to even have access to healthier options let alone be able to afford it! I liked learning abouts some of the medical reasons of why it is harder for some people to lose weight as well.

All in all I thought it was beneficial for people of all weights to view this show and could not understand why so many people passed judgement on the show before it even aired. Obesity and health are real issues for this country and those who feel otherwise are just doing themselves and future generations a diservice.

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eila May 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

I am really excited to watch this now that I’ve read your reviews and a few of the links… Having not seen it yet, I can’t share my thought on it, but I do think the more media the merrier when it comes to discussing why we have this epidemic, and what we can do as parents, families, and responsible companies to work towards healthier habits.

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Dana Woldow May 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm

By a happy coincidence, I too only just got around to posting my thoughts on the show, as well as some thoughts on your favorite topic of “cupcakes in the classroom” here
http://tinyurl.com/75w2mjv

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Jacqueline May 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I had already read some of the *very* negative reviews about this and was hoping you wouldn’t be one of them. ;-) While “Weight of the Nation” obviously didn’t cover the full extent of the issues involved in the obesity crisis…I do think it was a good documentary to get the discussion moving and I hope it is only the beginning of getting more people to learn and talk about these issues. I tried to look at it from the point of view of someone that may not be aware of many of the issues and by looking at it this way, I do see the positives. Personally, I was touched by the stories and did not find them to be disrespectful at all. Many of them had inspiring messages that will hopefully motivate others to do more for themselves and others. I was particularly glad to hear “Weight of the Nation” address the issues surrounding advertisement and quality of foods targeted for children (especially juice being as bad as soda!). But alas, I have to agree with your last statement “What on earth is going to account for the food industry’s supposed future role as promoter of good health? “

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Brenda Lou May 30, 2012 at 6:14 am

It was a pretty good documentary overall. I can understand how some fat people might take issue with it. I knew it would be accurate and balanced when Michele Simon went off attacking it. Anything Simon sez is the complete opposite of what a rational person will think, so I was interested to watch the series expecting quality reporting…and I wasn’t disappointed.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 30, 2012 at 8:50 am

Well, I actually didn’t disagree with a lot of what Michele wrote. Rather, having read her review before I watched, I assumed there would be really NO meaningful indictment of Big Food and I didn’t find that to be the case. I actually wish she’d been one of the interviewees in the documentary – I think she would have done a great job and would likely have discussed what it might really take to see real reform.

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Lisa Brooks May 30, 2012 at 7:32 am

I agree with your assessment, and I REALLY wish there had been more on Big Food/Big Ag and how those issues could be fixed. It definitely raised awareness though, and I am hopeful many people watched, and that it wasn’t just a lot of preaching to the choir.

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Mary Lawton May 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

For me the film was good on many levels. I have a very overweight sister who has been that for years. The segment on ‘mindful eating’ was something I had not seen addressed before and when I sent the link to her (HBO-GO) to watch it, she was very receptive. She has tried many, many diets and is currently on WW. I’ve seen her lose almost 20 lbs many times, and then gain it right back. She is the classic NOT mindful eater. So I hope this part of the film helps those who have never tried this technique. My sons, who want to drink sugary bevs and eat junk, watched Part 3 with me and were enlightened. After all I’ve been trying to teach them these past 15 years, this film somehow made a connection w/them and they understand.

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Eric May 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm

The documentary in general was informing and decent when I consider the perception and information by which the majority of people come from. I happen to be in the health industry both personally and professionally. I consult for organizations buying health insurance and I am also personally very big into my own fitness. The program did not go far enough to address so many powerful things that for some reason either seem complicated or not mainstream enough. There was too much influence and focus on medical professionals in the documentary as well which I find to be a trust issue. The fact is that for so many years people have trusted their doctors, or our governmental agencies on doing what is right and protecting us when many times they fail. Exercise was emphasized but not enough and it is not as simple as calories in calories out. That is an ignorant statement made by a doctor. The area of large ignorance to all people is our food. The program did a good job of identifying some easy scapegoats like soda and processed stuff, but they lacked in truly informing how toxic our food supply really is. One doctor on the program made a wonderful statement that needed to be its own entire 2 hour program, and that was that our nation has built a cheap food model and that ultimately the kind of food we eat is that which is most profitable to the food companies. Even your standard fruit, meat, and vegetables at your grocery store have been farmed with volume, efficiency, and profits in mind. They are genetically modified to resist disease, sprayed with chemicals, pumped full of hormones, or even fed un-natural diets. The rates of cancer in our society since WWII are directly related to our changing food supply over that same period. Rx drugs are the only thing that has artificially masked our nations true health over the years, and this needs to be understood by the masses. I give the program a B- for getting things started, but to effect change there must be more effort to engage people in change of not only their own health but the earth of society.

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mommm!!! June 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm

This is so true. The cheap food model only works for big food business, which is often interlinked financially with big pharma. It’s a horribly webbed cycle that makes the masses sick, who then in turn, turn to big pharma to get better only to end up living with disease on prescriptions rather than getting better. And these issues are all tied up with politics, which, has become all about money. With resources dwindling, you would think that farm soil and clean water health would be a top priority. Instead, it’s in the hands of chemical manufacturers.

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Cindy May 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I was overweight as a kid, and then became obese in high school and have been there ever since. I’ve turned a corner this year, where I have joined WW–which I think is a really good plan for those that need structure provided for them–and am much more active. It’s a long road, and I’m enjoying the journey, because how else to actually make changes but create new habits over time and do the work (which is hard and must be made a priority in a person’s life, in my experience anyway).

I’m in the processing of watching the documentary, but I was worried when I started watching that it would promote fat shaming, but I, too, have been pleased (and relieved) with what I have watched so far with regard to that issue.

I’m not sure what impact the documentary will have, I mean, maybe I am not the norm but I know nearly all of the information presented. I know it’s important to exercise, eat real (unprocessed) food and watch portions, etc. Being educated about these things and implementing changes (and then sticking with it and following through for the rest of my life) are two different things. When I joined WW I told myself, what am I willing to do for the rest of my life to lose weight, become healthy, and maintain it? I came up with a list that I run over pretty frequently to remind myself that these changes are the new normal.

I definitely agree that obesity must be prevented in children, because as adults it is very difficult to change. For me it has taken a lot of self-knowledge and reflection to determine what works best for me to ensure I eat well and remain active. I know it will always be a struggle for me, so I hope that we (as a country) can focus on prevention as I don’t want others to deal with this as I am.

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Thinner Now June 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I watched all four episodes and think of it as Public Service Announcement. I am often amazed at the lack of knowledge on this topic by the general public. I have great compassion for all this afflicts but I think the real reason behind the filming of it is to help the public understand that this does affect all of us as we ALL pay for someone that gets sick and has to miss work, go to a “free” clinic, increase health insurance premiums, etc. What we all need is some education. As someone who FINALLY has lost the 30 lbs. extra, I know I need to be vigilant every day with my food choices.

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