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The Terrifying Truth About America's Obesity Epidemic

"Weight of the Nation," a new four-part HBO series paints a grim picture of our health prospects -- and our children's.
 
 
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Substance abuse? That's so last century. Our problem now is sustenance abuse. Opiates are optional, but everyone's gotta eat. And therein lies the path to dietary disaster in America. "If you go with the flow, you'll be fat," is how Weight of the Nation, HBO's epic four-part series on our obesity crisis, sums it up. And once your weight creeps up, it puts you at risk for a whole range of unhealthy, unhappy outcomes.

It also puts you in the majority; two-thirds of Americans are now either overweight or obese. "Weight of the Nation," which premieres on May 14, kicks off an ambitious multimedia public health campaign for which HBO teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaiser Permanente, and several other health-related institutions. Together, these groups are sounding the alarm about the terrible burden we're needlessly inflicting on ourselves and our children.

Forget about free will and free markets (which, by the way, aren't so free, thanks to dubious agricultural policies and industry meddling). As "Weight of the Nation" makes clear, this epidemic of preventable disease won't be solved by invoking the mantra of personal responsibility and waiting for the food industry to put healthy people before healthy profits. It would take a public/private partnership of unprecedented proportions to get us back on track.

We've tolerated--even cultivated--a food culture that's literally toxic. And we've engineered exercise right out of our lives. This double whammy has dire repercussions; as David Nathan, director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Diabetes Center notes, "It is simply too easy to consume too many calories, and too difficult to expend those calories."

"Weight of the Nation" tells the sorry tale of all the forces that compel us to pile on the pounds--and how we could hypothetically shed them, given the right set of circumstances--through interviews with experts, profiles of kids and grown-ups who wrestle with their weight, and some truly appalling statistics and alarming charts. You may think you've heard it all before, but did you know that the way we eat is literally driving us crazy? If you're overweight or obese, you're 80 percent more likely to develop dementia.

Given those odds, we'd be insane not to try to change our ways. But, after you watch "Weight of the Nation," you'll have a new understanding of why losing weight--and more importantly, keeping it off--is so hard to do.

"We underestimate how hard it is to change your behavior not once, not for a week or a month until you're cured, but to change it everyday for the rest of your life," according to David Altschuler, a geneticist and endocrinologist at Mass General.

The math is daunting. Americans today take in an average of 600 calories a day more than we did in 1970. That can add up to a weight gain of five or 10 pounds a year. As the dedicated dieters in "Weight of the Nation" demonstrate, it takes a heroic effort to lose that weight, much less keep it off. The food industry claims it's addressing this problem by marketing those "better for you" foods that are, in fact, still pretty bad for you. After all, as Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, points out:

"If we reduced our caloric intake by a hundred calories, it would cost the industry about $36-$40 billion every year. It's sort of like the energy industry isn't really excited about programs to become more energy efficient, because they don't earn anything when we're buying fewer gallons. The same problem besets the food industry and really is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to dealing with obesity."

 
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