Last week, after I declared my refusal to watch the HBO series, “Weight of the Nation,” Marlene Schwartz, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (a group featured in the program) politely suggested that I give all four episodes a chance before I criticize. I did. It was even worse than I feared.
Of course, as a public health advocate I am in favor of bring more attention to the nation’s diet-related health crisis. However the HBO series distracts us with the usual scare tactics, dances around the hard political issues, and leaves the viewer with the misguided impression that if we all just worked harder in our own communities, we can fix this mess.
Fear the fat – more shaming and blaming
Numerous others have provided excellent explanations for why all the alarm sounding over obesity should be questioned from a scientific perspective. For example, see Deb Burgard and Linda Bacon, both leaders in the Health at Every Size movement, which aims to shift away from body size and fat-shaming toward health and compassion. Also, Marilyn Wann, in this excellent historical overview and critique disputes the CDC’s claim that Weight of the Nation is “an unprecedented public health campaign” but argues it’s rather a continuation of a decades-long painful episode.
But even without getting into a debate over data, the evidence that America’s fear of fat is harmful is clear. For example, scientific research shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, and stigma, so shows like this make life even more difficult for them.
Indeed, the first two episodes were mostly about obese people suffering from one malady or another, interspersed with health expert talking heads scaring us with statistics and images of gross organs and surgeries. And not a peep about how thin people who don’t exercise or eat a healthy diet are at risk for chronic disease.
Individual stories of suffering were interwoven between the talking heads. For example, the bus driver who feared her husband didn’t love her anymore, or the woman who achieved weight loss (success!) through “small steps,” ensuring the focus remained on individuals and behavior change.
A few things they got right
Things did get a little better in segment three, which focused on children. Finally, an explanation of junk food marketing, with excellent quotes from folks like Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center on Obesity and Food Policy, (“Powerful, pernicious, and predatory,” he called marketing to kids ) and Margo Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (“marketing shapes kids’ choices, to foods that will kill them.”) Also good was footage of a Congressional hearing on junk food marketing, the only foray into actual policymaking in the entire program.
Several segments focused on important issues like agricultural policies and how our bodies are hard-wired to conserve fat, in a clear attempt to shift the conversation away from one all about personal responsibility. However, none of these segments dove deeply enough into the politics and overall the messages stayed safely in the realms of medicine, exercise, behavior change, and localized solutions.
We see numerous examples of junk food marketing to children, but far too little about the powerful lobbying by the food, advertising, and media industries and how that undermines policymaking. And it’s not like such information isn’t readily available.
During a segment showing Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter wandering his streets in search of healthy food, I thought, this would be a great place to talk about how the American Beverage Association lobbied to stop his soda tax proposal from going forward, even donating $10 million to Philly’s Children’s Hospital to ensure his silence. Not a chance.
Or, during the many scenes with New York City’s health commissioner Tom Farley, a mention could have been made of that city’s attempt to restrict food stamp spending on soft drinks, which also got heavy push-back from the soda industry. Nothing. This, despite the experts identifying soft drinks as enemy number one, along with other problems related to our food environment.
I was hopeful during one segment when the talking heads admitted that exercise and physical activity were really far less important than food intake when it comes to addressing obesity, a point I’ve made related to children. (Kudos for the take-down the awful show, the Biggest Loser.)
But then the producers seemed to ignore their own experts by showing lazy kids playing video games and offering as the most tangible policy solutions more walking and biking trails. Indeed, the entire series ends with the mayor of Nashville leading his residents in a pied-piper walk to thinness.
Where are the policy solutions?
No clear policy solutions to prevent obesity were offered. Could soda taxes work? How about efforts to restrict toys with kid’s meals? Not even one lawyer to discuss litigation as a potential strategy to hold the food industry accountable for deceptive marketing practices? And what about the farm bill, which is up for renewal this year?
Nope, all too edgy, even for HBO.
Which is really not surprising given the entire project was produced in collaboration with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which isn’t about to criticize the Obama Administration for its failure to lead on numerous food issues. Also featured prominently was the Congressional advisory body, the Institute of Medicine, which released a set of recommendations last week, which I described as déjà vu all over again.
Obesity distracts from food system change
Continuing to focus on obesity is problematic for numerous reasons. As this program painfully demonstrates, it’s too easy to place the blame on individuals, to make them the sole locus of change instead of fixing the systemic problems with our food system. Also, exercise is a powerful and safe distraction for policymakers.
Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!
Instead of talking body size, (don’t thin people get sick?) let’s garner the political power we need to focus squarely on fixing the food system, which is admittedly more complex than calories in, calories out but is also more compassionate. As Deb Burgard explains, the fat blame game is just too easy:
Blaming fatness keeps us from addressing the root causes of our problems and is clearly unfair to fat people. Many powerful people understand this but find it expedient to frame a problem in terms of fat in order to bring attention to it. They don’t think people will just attend to the real issue unless they whip up the fat panic. … I say, have the courage to make your argument about the real issues and stop doing it on the backs of fat people.
This will take a political movement that can’t be brought to you by cable television.
An edited version of this article appeared at Grist.