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In an effort to increase awareness of the obesity epidemic which could very well cripple the health of Americans, HBO, in an unprecedented collaboration with the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is showing a special documentary series across all their services called ‘The Weight of the Nation’. On May 14, part 1 and part 2 will show the first facets of the rapidly developing health crisis. The third and fourth part will air on the following day.
Part 3: ‘Children in Crisis’ – Tuesday, May 15 (8:00-9:10 p.m.)
America’s children may be the first generation in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Approximately 32% of America’s young people are overweight or obese.
‘Children in Crisis’ tells the heart-wrenching stories of young people struggling with excess weight and facing serious medical complications at an early age, and takes a hard look at the marketing practices of the food and beverage industry, which often undermine efforts of parents and others committed to keeping children healthy.
“If you were told your child is at risk for cancer, that would get your attention,” comments NIH director Collins. “If you were told your child is at risk for some sort of brain disease, that would get your attention. Well, obesity ought to be on that list.”
While the food and beverage industry has voluntarily made some progress in improving the nutritional value of the products it markets to children, an ongoing debate over the definition of good nutrition continues among industry, researchers and government. ‘Children in Crisis’ highlights efforts to persuade policymakers to do more to protect children.
“Government has a responsibility to act, but they’re not the whole answer,” says Margo Wootan, DSc, director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “We also need companies to step up, to reformulate their products, to change their marketing practices and to make healthy options available in restaurants.”
Families face an uphill battle in getting their children to be physically active and eat the right amount of healthy foods. Dr. Elsie Taveras, MD, who runs the One Step Ahead Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that “more and more research is showing actually that children are exposed to pretty toxic advertising.”
This advertising, combined with little advertising for fruits and vegetables, fuels cravings for sugary food and beverages. Sodas and fruit drinks are the largest sources of added sugar in the diets of American children and adolescents.
America’s schools are a great place to set strong examples about healthy eating and living, but a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study found that 94% of schools served a lunch that failed to meet their own standards for healthy school meals. Students have access to a variety of foods and beverages high in calories, added fats and sugars at school. Furthermore, most U.S. school districts have eliminated physical education programs, while there is no federal law requiring physical education.
Part 4: ‘Challenges’ – Tuesday, May 15 (9:10-10:15 p.m.)
Some experts project that by 2030, between 32% and 52% of American adults may be obese. ‘Challenges’ examines the driving forces behind the obesity epidemic, including agriculture, economics, evolutionary biology, racial and socioeconomic disparities, physical inactivity and the strong influence of the food and beverage industry. “In the future, it wouldn’t surprise me if people look back on the early part of the 21st century and call this the obesity era,” says Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City’s health commissioner.
The film shows how food is produced and marketed, which can have severe consequences for the nation’s health. For example, national farm policies, including subsidies for corn and soy, have contributed to an abundance of processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.
However, fruit and vegetable farmers get little support, and only 3% of American crop land is used for fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, the vast majority of Americans fall short of meeting recommendations for daily servings of fruits and vegetables. High-calorie food is often much cheaper than vegetables and fruit.
‘Challenges’ also reveals that the industry’s emphasis on taste and cost has resulted in large, low-price, high-calorie portions, fostering a culture of excess and contributing to the spread of obesity.
Philip Marineau, former president of the Quaker Oats Company, Pepsi-Cola North America comments, “Food companies are trying to sell more today than they did yesterday. And if they don’t, then they’re not considered successful. And ultimately, if we are going to be successful in reducing obesity, people are going to consume less. And that’s the conundrum.”
Experts draw a compelling comparison with the fight against tobacco companies in the interest of public health. “If the tobacco industry can be taken on successfully by the public health world, then I don’t see any reason why the food industry can’t be the same,” says Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Refusing to accept what many call the new normal of obesity, individuals and communities across the nation are rising up to meet the challenge.
Stories include: the company-wide wellness program of the largest commercial construction company in Nabholz, Ark., which lowered employees’ pre-diabetes rates 13.4% in three years; Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of 150 farms in the Kansas City area created to more effectively reach consumers with “wallet-friendly” produce; and Nashville mayor Karl Dean, who leads an innovative effort that leverages the city’s own resources to make it a healthier place to live, constructing more sidewalks, bike trails and greenways.
CDC director Frieden closes the film on a note of optimism, observing, “We are seeing changes. They’re not going to be overnight, they’re not quick, but they’re happening. And they are going to help control the weight of the nation.”
For more information on ‘The Weight of the Nation’ and the screening kits, please visit hbo.com/theweightofthenation.