The Terrifying Truth About America's Obesity Epidemic

Personal Health

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."

Another obstacle is our increasingly sedentary way of life. Physical activity is crucial to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight; it not only burns calories but also reduces stress, which can lead to weight gain. But while our calorie consumption's crept up, our level of physical activity has plummeted. Seventy-five percent of us now drive to work--a 300 percent increase since 1960. In 1969, 42 percent of kids walked or biked to school. Now, more than 80 percent of them are driven to school. Fewer than 5 percent of adults meet the minimum guidelines for physical activity, and one in four adults gets no physical activity at all.

Our bodies weren't designed to handle this combination of excess calories and chronic inactivity. "Weight of the Nation" reveals that heart disease is even turning up in children now. In fact, as one medical expert notes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease--"a disease we had never even seen before"--shows up in the autopsies of 13 percent of all children and 38 percent of obese children.

One of the few hopeful statistics in the series is this: only 7 percent of healthy children grow up to become obese. That's all the more reason it's so unconscionable that we're ignoring our childrens' brains and bodies' most basic needs. Lobbyists repeatedly torpedo efforts to improve our school lunch program. The food industry bombards kids with ads and apps enticing them to consume all kinds of fatty, sugary foods and beverages. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, denounces this practice as "powerful, pernicious and predatory," but industry apologists defend it under the banner of free speech.

We keep our kids cooped up in classrooms all day, even though we know they need to get outside and play. Currently, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education. One policy maker who tried to increase the number of hours of physical education in Texas, Susan Combs, offered this grim warning:

"Obesity will crush the United States, and we will fade in the rearview mirror in oblivion. We could have done something different, we should have done something different, and we lacked the moral fiber and love for our children to do the right thing."

"Weight of the Nation" floats the notion that it's not too late to turn things around. But we're fighting our own biology as well as all those virulent vested interests. As a young overweight woman profiled in the series notes, "We don't crave broccoli."

But it's worse than that. We not only don't crave broccoli, we marginalize it. Our agricultural policies do little or nothing to support the farmers who grow it. Court Justice Antonin Scalia posited that mandatory broccoli consumption might be the logical extension of President Obama's healthcare reforms. All this hostility towards a perfectly delightful, delicious and nutritious vegetable is just further proof that we need a sea-change in our attitudes about food. How about starting by declaring an end to the crucifying of crucifers?

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