The Weight Of The Nation

The Weight Of The Nation

The first two parts of The Weight Of The Nation debut tonight on HBO at 8 p.m. Parts three and four air tomorrow, May 15, at 8 p.m.

HBO’s newest documentary, The Weight Of The Nation, is designed first and foremost to scare the living shit out of you. And given the topic at hand—the country’s increasing obesity epidemic—that’s a good thing. It’s a topic that requires not a gentle push but a huge jolt in order to raise awareness and focus attention. This exhaustive, four-and-a-half-hour, four-part special has been produced in association with several of the United States’ leading health organizations, which gives access not only to experts but clinical studies, panels, and behind-the-scenes discussions that are seeking to shape not only current health trends but also the very nature of the country’s future as a world superpower. But most of all, Nation gives voices to those that often too seek to be invisible: members of the nearly 70 percent of Americans currently diagnosed as overweight or obese.

It’s hard to review the special without turning said review into a political polemic unto itself. But while the length of the documentary can be intimidating, its running time is also extremely necessary in order to convey the depth and breadth of the American obesity problem. Still, even after four-plus hours, it feels as if Nation hasn’t done nearly enough to fully address the issues at hand. That’s not a slam against the documentary so much as a testament to the nature of the problem. Much of the series is dedicated to unearthing why it’s taken so long for so many to deal with this problem head on. But watching Nation makes it pretty clear pretty fast: Once you stare directly at the problem, it can overwhelm you to the point of near helplessness.

Luckily, most of the documentary is built around taking these seemingly insurmountable problems and breaking them down to an almost molecular level. Each of the four parts focuses on a seemingly nondescript aspect (the first part is titled “Consequences”) and then tearing apart the various factors that have led to the current crisis. Having the cooperation of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows Nation access to vast amounts of data, data which overwhelmingly and objectively points to a meteoric rise over the last few decades of weight gain and the health problems that result because of it. However, a steady of stream of data is nothing compared to the individual stories this documentary tells, and how Nation contextualizes these problems within greater historical trends.

Instead of focusing on adults with these types of health issues, Nation spends a lot of time on the children who engage in lifestyles that lead them to exhibit symptoms earlier than scientists ever thought possible. Indeed, much of the documentary is spent detailing just how recently much of the facts presented came to light. One could argue that the use of children in Nation is exploitative, until the series explains just how many later problems arise due to childhood obesity. Preventative care turns into a common theme, both from a moral and fiscal perspective. That’s hardly a new concept, but it’s also one that can’t be overemphasized. By following patients’ health over the course of decades, an individual’s life turns into a microcosm of bad choices, market forces, and sheer lack of education.

Those market forces take on added weight as the documentary progresses, with later installments turning away from the effects on individuals toward the society that shaped (literally) those people. Doctors, scientists, and advocates are all individually interviewed, their comments interwoven to build a complex, overlapping story that points to evolutionary necessity, national pride, and technological innovation as the three main pillars leading to the obesity crisis. Many point to “scarcity” as a driving evolutionary force, one that hasn’t been naturally selected out of the gene pool over the past 30 years. The agricultural revolution stemmed from the U.S. government’s need to have a well-fed population to ensure its status as a world power, but now produces too much food for people who lead a sedentary lifestyle. But there is so much profit to be made from the distribution of excess food that it’s almost impossible to insert fruits and vegetables into a corn- and soybean-based economy.

Even typing that paragraph made me a little mad, which probably means the documentary did its job. Still, it’s not all doom and gloom throughout Nation. The last hour thankfully focuses on the ways in which individuals, small groups, and even local governments have sought incremental changes that don’t solve the overall problem but certainly help on a small scale. The feeling of helplessness that pervades so many interviewees doesn’t dissipate thanks to greenway initiatives in Nashville, Tennessee. But those feelings are ameliorated somewhat, and point to a way in which governments don’t solve problems but offer spaces for citizen-based solutions. This isn’t sexy stuff, but neither are the successful diets that many depicted in Nation follow. This documentary suggests that giving up on a magic-bullet solution, either to the nation’s waistline or your own, yields the possibility of actual change. It’s change that takes hard, persistent work, but it’s also probably the only way that the Pixar movie WALL-E doesn’t turn into a predictive documentary. 

Stray observations…

  • In addition to the primary documentary, HBO will also air a standalone, kid-centric special called “The Great Cafeteria Takeover” about a group of students in New Orleans that convinced the multinational food distribution company Aramark to deliver locally grown produce twice a week. It’s a lovely, short film that provides concrete, actionable items for children that want to get involved. Also? These kids made me feel 80 percent lazier than I already did. After I finish this review, I’m off to run 30 miles to a produce store lest doctors have to amputate my foot before the week is over.
  • If this documentary does nothing else, it will horrify parents that think substituting juice for soda has yielded a healthier choice for their children.
  • One doctor notes, “There’s no nature versus nurture. There’s nature AND nurture.” It’s a sentiment with which other physicians concur, and Nation demonstrates this succinctly by noting the disparity in life expectancy between two neighborhoods eight miles away from each other in Ohio. That disparity? Twenty-eight years.
  • I’m not one to pimp the sites of the shows I review, but it’s worth it to check out HBO’s site for this documentary, which features a host of resources that you might find useful and is available even if you don’t have HBO in your cable package.
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