‘The Weight of the Nation’ – An HBO Documentary – Companion Book Review

Guess what? America is fat. I’m sure that a part of you already knows this just by walking down the street, shopping at your local stores and malls, going to movie theaters, and just living in the USA. I don’t say this to sound insensitive or mean about it, but the fact is that if the current trend of weight gain in the USA continues, experts predict that by 2018, 75 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese. This prediction should scare you, and if it doesn’t, maybe you should see HBO’s documentary series, The Weight of the Nation.

Debuting on HBO Monday, May 14 in two parts and concluding on May 15 in a final two parts, The Weight of the Nation is a both an important documentary and a major health initiative. The documentary series is driven by HBO, the National Institute of Health, Centers for Disease Control and funded in part by Kaiser Permanente. In conjunction with the series (which HBO will also play for free on their website after it premieres on their station for all to see), the doctors and experts behind the series have released a companion book.

Written by John Hoffman, Dr. Judith A. Salerno, and Alexandra Moss, The Weight of the Nation is a short book, 172 pages (203 pages with the afterword), but despite its brevity, it’s filled with very interesting and informative facts. It’s not another run-of-the-mill diet book; rather, 125 of its pages are dedicated to the scientific understanding of how our bodies process food, as well as the forces of nature, government, and industry that fight against our health. While this heavy concentration on science, nature, government, and industry isn’t a direct fault and is in fact very useful in attaining a general understanding of the problems, it takes a very long time to get to solutions. Reading 125 pages of blame (almost none of which lies on individuals themselves) is frustrating.

The book, however, does a very good job of outlining the health effects of being overweight and obese. To many readers these effects may be obvious, but this doesn’t negate the power of actually seeing them printed again. “Part III” of the book, for example, outlines the forces that fight against the public and weight control. The authors place the blame equally on fast-food restaurants, big food companies, supermarkets, advertising, and marketing; the fashion and beauty industries; some Americans’ tendency to have sedentary lifestyles thanks to work that doesn’t require physical activity; and education budgets and schools. The biggest culprit the authors target is the government. The book isn’t written to preach against the government from any political perspective but to detail specific legislation that has brought America to this point in time and this size of our waists.

Some historical background: The Homestead Act of 1862, which promoted farming and national growth in the West, led to the establishment of farms. Farmers soon found that the crops that shipped best back to the densely populated East Coast were corn, soy, wheat, and other grains. With the massive success of these farming products, the future of our agriculture and dietary culture was solidified.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and the Reagan Administration’s budgetary cuts of $1 billion to school lunch budgets drastically shifted how our children ate at schools. This is my generation. I was born in 1983 and grew up with different food at school. The budget cuts forced school districts to find ways to save money with the meals they provided to students. They cut employees who cooked fresh meals and replaced them with pre-packaged processed foods that were ready to serve or easily re-heatable.

The problem with budget cuts to schools is pretty simple to describe. Students spend more time at school then they do anywhere else (outside of home). When they are at school, students have two meal options – what they brought from home or what the school provides. If the school’s budget doesn’t provide for healthy options, then our country’s obesity problem starts young. Without healthy options and educating students about what is healthy, our children are at the whim of what’s available. The blame of these problems is wide reaching.

These industry standards and government policies evenly share the blame, but it doesn’t feel like much is placed on the individual who made the choice to eat at that fast-food restaurant. While the authors do acknowledge some forces beyond our control (food swamps, etc.), there still needs to be accountability by the individual. (Food swamps are defined by the authors as areas where grocery stores are vastly outnumbered by fast-food chains and characteristically unhealthy food options in poorer city neighborhoods. Statistically these “food swamps” are located in predominantly African-American and Latino ethnic neighborhoods.)

Lastly, one point that the authors never touch on is the health care industry. Yes, insurance companies do spend billions on health care, but they profit from the obesity problem, as do hospitals and doctors. This profiteering is something I’ve honestly never seen written about or acknowledged before. I’d be very interested to know who makes the money and influences who keeps America fat.

When the book finally does get to solutions, they’re seriously alternative. This is not a diet book and openly states so. Diets for the most part do not work. The authors do a good job of offering solutions to help you start, but they don’t offer a concrete and detailed step by step guide for those that need that information.

When The Weight of the Nation succeeds it’s by scientifically and biologically explaining why weight is an issue (genetics! evolution! creatures of habit!). If you have the fortitude to want to learn about these aspects and use that knowledge to improve your life, this book is a wonderful place to start. It won’t be a one-and-done resource, however. Thankfully, the authors offer other books for additional reading that may help those looking for further information. So in the end, it’s the reader’s and every person’s responsibility to better themselves and this book will motivate you, but it won’t help you cross that finish line to your goals.

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