Like many Americans, I used to think that overweight people simply needed to eat less and move more. I thought that would solve their problem and our national obesity epidemic. However, I've come to understand that we have less control over our waistlines than we think. In fact, many of the choices we make are influenced by forces we have not fully understood until now.
For anyone who's trying their best to eat less and move more, we now have scientific proof that enemy #1 is their own biology. Our bodies have been shaped by society, evolutionary biology, technology, economics and the invisible forces all around us that compel us to eat more and move less.
Big decisions that have been made in this country by industry, agriculture and government are having an oversized impact on the little decisions and actions we take in our daily lives. They are dictating what we eat when we're hungry and how long we sit at our desks, in our cars, or on our couches.
More often than not, we get these signals from corporate marketing and advertising. (Have you ever noticed how the volume on your TV goes up when the commercials come on?)
Starting May 14 and 15th, HBO is airing a four-part documentary series called The Weight of the Nation, part of a comprehensive public health campaign. The effort also includes a book and regional screenings, and there will be new research from our partners about the risks, consequences, and solutions surrounding obesity, and more. It offers an unflinching look at the severity of the obesity crisis and exposes the driving forces behind it.
The Weight of the Nation is one of the most far-reaching campaigns to date to tackle this issue. It is an unprecedented joint effort of HBO and 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. Our partners are all stakeholders with a vested interest in solving this crisis.
And for good reason:
- More than two-thirds of adults age 20 and over in America are overweight or obese, and nearly one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
- Obesity-related health care costs nearly $150 billion annually. Someone who is obese costs an average of $1,400 more a year to care for.
- Obesity contributes to 5 of the 10 leading causes of death in America, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancers, stroke, and kidney disease.
- 94 percent of American schools fail to meet federal standards for fat and saturated fat in school lunches.
- If current trends continue, this could become the first generation in U.S. history whose children have a shorter life span than their parents.
When it comes to obesity in America, there are things we think you should know. At HBO, we answer to subscribers, not advertisers. And that gives us a certain freedom to speak the truth, even when the truth is disturbing.
We know that humans evolved over millennia to be able to survive in lean times -- to consume and conserve as much energy as possible. But here in 21st century America, we are living in an age of plenty, of high-yielding crops, supersized meals, and caloric "water" marketed as energy and sports drinks. When you factor in this inescapable context, it becomes clear that we are asking people to go against our very nature every time we implore them to "eat less and move more."
The Weight of the Nation also reveals that much more than our personal choices, how and what we produce -- and how it is marketed -- can have severe consequences for our health and future. For example, government subsidy programs primarily support large commodities like wheat, corn and dairy products, which can be easily processed into shelf-stable foods. Meanwhile, the sale of local fruits and vegetables comprises just two percent of all U.S. agricultural sales, and fruit and vegetable farmers get no subsidies.
The films take a hard look at what Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, calls the "pernicious and powerful" practices of food and beverage marketers. Marketing foods and drinks that are the worst for us makes it harder for parents and others committed to keeping our families healthy. Yet, when profit margins for these high-calorie, high-sugar, high-fat products are vastly wider than those of healthier foods, they consume the most advertising space on TV, radio, print or online.
As complex as the obesity crisis may be, we need to face the reality that it is becoming a devastating "new normal" in America, posing one of the most serious and urgent threats to our health, economy, and way of life. To reverse the prevalence of obesity and bring the nation to a healthier weight, we need to change more than ourselves. We need to transform our entire society.
John Hoffman is vice president of HBO Documentary Films and an executive producer of The Weight of the Nation series. The films will premiere on HBO on May 14 and May 15 and will also air on HBO on Demand and HBO GO. All films will be available in English and Spanish, and will stream free of charge on HBO.com. Follow The Weight of the Nation on Twitter @WeightoftheNtn.