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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

A Matter of Weight

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HBO is running a documentary called The Weight of the Nation, dealing with obesity in the United States. This four-part series will present information and analysis on how it is we've gotten so large. According to the trailer, "Nearly 69 percent of all U.S. adults are overweight or obese." When it's over, HBO's presentation will be added to the existing large body of information and analysis available on why people get and stay fat.

This presentation hadn't even aired yet and it already has its detractors. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, writing in the Daily Beast, took exception to the conclusions given in the HBO presentation by what he termed the "anti-obesity establishment." Instead of concluding people get fat because they eat too many calories, Taubes presents a case that people get fat because they eat too much of the wrong calories, and lays out his case with reasons and rationales. Inevitably, some of the comments posted after his article go to great length to refute his refutation. It seems everyone has an opinion on why people get fat, and those opinions don't necessarily mesh.

If the 69 percent figure is correct, over two-thirds of us adults are overweight. Back at the start of 2010, it seemed our weight problem reached a plateau. The Centers for Disease Control came out with a study that preliminarily indicated our obesity rates had "peaked" at 34 percent. There was even a hypothesis that a biological limit had been reached for obesity, postulating the larger people get, the more energy (calories) it takes to move that weight around, leading to a stabilization point. That was 2010. A report called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011" issued in July 2011 said obesity rates went up in 16 states and didn't decline in any. Other reports said obesity remained stable in 2011.

All of this data and these numbers, though, come down to individual people, struggling with their weight. In just the past week or so, I've noticed stories that involve weight. There was the one about the woman suing Southwest Airlines because she was told she was "too fat to fly," at one point weighing in at 400 pounds. She wants the airline to clarify its policy and to enforce it consistently instead of leaving whether or not she needs to purchase two seats up to an airline gate agent. The story itself is certainly interesting enough, but I found the comments posted at the end of the article equally fascinating, as people related their own stories of traveling next to individuals unable to be contained within a standard 17.2-inch airline seat. Maybe it was the 400 pound reference, but I remembered a story I read at the end of last year about a man who paid over $800 for a ticket from Anchorage to Philadelphia and ended up standing the whole way because of being seated next to a man who was 400 pounds and literally took over his seat. And then there's the story of the 9-year-old boy from Ohio who weighed more than 200 pounds when he was removed from his home and placed in foster care to slim down. He was returned to his mother under protective supervision after he lost 50 pounds.

It seems to me any national conversation that needs to take place really comes down to is what those stories brought out -- individual people dealing with the consequences of many of us being overweight. After a quarter-century dealing with eating disorders, including working with the morbidly obese, my experience is there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this issue. People become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. There are physical reasons, medical reasons, emotional reasons and relational reasons. Each person struggling with his or her weight is a unique amalgamation of all of the above.

As difficult as it is to accept, this obesity epidemic requiring a national conversation has to be done person by person by person, with as much collective compassion, creativity, insight and patience as humanly possible.

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