On Monday night, HBO will premiere its four-part documentary, “The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic.” While the film is very good, the conversation around it leaves something to be desired.
First the documentary: The United States is in the midst of one of the greatest public-health crises in its history. While this isn’t news, we can’t afford to stop talking about the problem or potential solutions.
One of the film’s strongest features is that it finally takes on the food industry, especially the way it targets children. One on-camera expert goes so far as to say that food marketing to kids is “powerful, it’s pernicious and it’s predatory.”
These are bold words, not in their content, but because you rarely hear such a direct indictment of our food industry. As a premium cable channel, HBO doesn’t have to worry about blowback from advertisers. To its credit, HBO uses that independence to take a hard look at one of the prime drivers behind our “obesity” epidemic.
Of course, the issue is more complex than a bunch of food executives in black hats. It’s not realistic to go after a single scapegoat or a simple cause for our nation’s “obesity” problem. In fact, it may not even be productive to call it an “obesity” epidemic.
Both the documentary and our national dialogue frame the issue in terms of our “weight” and “obesity” problem. While that may be an obvious place to start, “obesity” is really a byproduct of a series of larger problems.
You could argue that we have a cultural problem, with our kids now spending an average of 7.5 hours per day (yikes!!!!) absorbed in electronic media.
You could also say we have an economic problem, with manufactured food (anything in boxes or bags) priced at a fraction of the cost of the fruits and vegetables that should make up half of our daily diet.
Or you might say we have a biological problem, since we’re literally built to eat food if it’s in front of us and to favor immediate gratification over long-term gain.
The truth is that the “obesity” epidemic is a perfect storm of all of these issues. And by stigmatizing fat and fat individuals, we run the risk of seeing the problem through lard-covered glasses.
In fact, this exact viewpoint has already made the problem worse. As “60 Minutes” recently reported, America’s obsession with fat has led food manufacturers to find ways to take natural fats out of foods. But that also removes most of the flavor. So manufacturers have replaced fat with artificial sweeteners, which ironically have proven to make us even fatter than the original fat might have.
As the old margarine commercial used to say: “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” Humans are biologically designed to use our bodies as much as our minds. This balance is out of whack in the modern world, but the keys to a relative wellness are not out of reach:
- Sleep more and eat less.
- Move around every day (at least 10,000 steps or an hour of moderate activity).
- Drink mostly water.
- Try to make half of what you eat be actual fruits and vegetables.
If Americans, and especially our children, would adopt these elements in their daily lives, we could eradicate the epidemic in one generation. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
That’s why we don’t have an “obesity” epidemic so much as a “lifestyle” or “wellness” epidemic. And that’s why we shouldn’t focus on getting thinner, but on adopting healthier lifestyles.
We don’t want our kids to grow up obsessing about their weight or their waist lines (like we do). We want them to develop good habits, so it becomes second nature to grab a glass of water instead of a soda. These types of small changes over a lifetime can have a huge impact on the overall wellness of our kids’ entire generation.
Centuries ago, when food was scarce, cultures fetishized the overweight. Today, we’ve gone to the other extreme, holding up unrealistically thin models and actors as our physical ideals. Neither alternative is healthy. And not measuring up to unrealistic ideals just plain doesn’t feel good.
What does feel good is setting a simple goal—adding one piece of fruit a day to your diet—and then accomplishing it. It feels so good that it might lead to the addition of another simple goal (add an extra veggie a day) and then another (walk an extra 100 steps every day). Over time… well, you get the picture.
We’ve built up enough evidence over the past few decades to realize that trying to lose weight is not going to solve the problem. So maybe it’s time to stop focusing on the negative byproduct—obesity—and turn our attention to the proactive solution—healthy habits.
In that regard, those extra pounds might turn out to be like the pesky kid next door. By ignoring them and just doing what we should in our day-to-day lives, we might find that they just go away on their own.