'The Weight of the Nation': New HBO documentary tackles nationwide obesity

theGRIO REPORT - 'The Weight of the Nation' offers an uncompromising look at the severity of the obesity crisis and the driving forces behind the problem...

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Vivia Armstrong was obese at the age of 10. By the time she reached her teens, she tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds. Today, the Atlanta-based marketing consultant is considered morbidly obese according to clinical standards.

“Being overweight or obese is all I have ever known,” says 28-year-old Armstrong. “I can’t relate to people who used to be thin.”

Armstrong is just one of millions of Americans who are classified as overweight, obese, severely obese, morbidly obese or super obese. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (2012) about 69 percent of U.S. adults fall into these categories.

The situation is getting worse. So much so that health practitioners are talking about an obesity epidemic at catastrophic levels, which could potentially threaten the health, welfare and future of the United States.

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The magnitude of the problem was the impetus behind HBO joining forces with the nation’s leading medical institutions, to make the four-part documentary, The Weight of the Nation, which premieres on May 14.

The film offers an uncompromising look at the severity of the obesity crisis and the driving forces behind the problem.

“The sole purpose is to sound a very loud alarm that the issue of obesity has to become a top priority in this country” says John Hoffman, executive producer of the project, which was three years in the making.

“The health of our country is compromised if two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese,” adds Hoffman. “Our future is weakened if one-third of our kids are obese and our healthcare system will be on the verge of bankruptcy if things don’t change.”

Rates of obesity and associated chronic illnesses are higher in African-American and Hispanic communities, acknowledges Hoffman. This, though, “is not about race, but income” because these communities are for the most part, lower income, he says.

M. Christopher Griffith, M.D., an African-American child and adolescent psychiatrist for the Permanente Medical Group in Georgia, points to a lack of access to resources in poorer areas, from healthy food options to a shortage of safe walking environments such as parks.

The third part of the series, “Children in Crisis,” tells the stories of young people struggling with excess weight, and facing medical conditions at an early age. It examines the mass marketing of junk food to children, unhealthy school options and lack of play spaces.

The situation is so bleak that some experts fear this may be the first generation of American children who will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. It highlights a slew of sobering statistics. So, for instance, the percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008.

One of the children in the film is Tiarra Francis, 8, from Boston, Massachusetts. She is seen in multiple segments as her mother attempts to stop and reverse her weight gain; this includes a sequence where a doctor discovers the young girl is already showing signs of pre-diabetes.

Armstrong, who is a film subject in part 2 (Choices) and the final film (Challenges) in the HBO series, attributes at least some of her eating habits to patterns picked up as a child. She qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch at school, which she says “wasn’t the healthiest of meals.”

Her mother, who struggled financially following her father’s death, “didn’t understand the importance of implementing a healthy lifestyle,” adds Armstrong.

“I hope that the series shows what it is honestly like to be obese and also teaches people not to be so quick to stereotype,” says Armstrong. “There are people who want help but who don’t know how to make the change or it’s not accessible.”

As for her own weight issues, Armstrong says, “it’s an ongoing challenge.”

Hoffman admits the causes and solutions to the obesity crisis are far-reaching and complex. For there to be any hope of change, there must be a “massive change in cultural norms” from top-down and bottom-up, he says.

The Weight of the Nation debuts on HBO with two back-to-back one-hour shows May 14 and two more May 15, beginning at 8 p.m. ET/PT each night. The series is part of a far-reaching public health campaign.

The film was made in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti