I’ve been meaning to write about HBO’s impending 4-part documentary, “Weight of the Nation,” which will air on HBO on May 14th (parts 1 & 2) and 15th (parts 3 & 4) at 8 p.m. You can watch the trailer here.
I’ve diligently read the press release, read the hand outs, and sat in on an hour long webinar, hoping that I would hear something new, refreshing or, frankly, something that shows me people are starting to get it. I’m sad to say that while I have not watched the documentary in its entirety (my screening kit is on its way), I’m 99% sure based on the information I’ve already encountered (even just the slogan of the docu alone, which is “To win, we have to lose”) that we’re, unfortunately, going to get a rather consistent and detrimental message. It’s the same one we’ve been getting thus far: weight is the best proxy for health. In order to “solve” obesity, we have to lose weight. This is the same message that First Lady Michelle Obama is sending with her Let’s Move campaign and her public support of The Biggest Loser. In fact, the docu’s ancillary “obesity hand out” is just a simple regurgitation of the alarmist rhetoric we can find on the CDC’s site: “Obesity is a serious health condition that increases one’s risk of heart cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, and many other conditions. Reducing the obesity rates and associated health problems requires action and collaboration among individuals, families, schools, health professionals, nonprofit and community groups, and government agencies.” Ah, interesting how we need non-profits etc. to help us solve this “crisis” (think: FUNDING!).
The prescription to eat less and move more has a small level of reason to it (as any overly simplistic statement/cliche has). But it could be stated, more adequately, that we should eat more (fruits & veggies) and move some. These are healthful behaviors that we should all strive for. But these behaviors in and of themselves will not affect your waistline, so I don’t understand why we are obsessed with conflating “improve health” with “decrease weight.” More and more people (outside of the non-profits funding this docu) are beginning to understand that exercise as a means to weight loss is a ridiculously ineffective and unsustainable notion. You would have to run 30 minutes at a 10 minute-mile pace just to burn the calories in half of some bagels. Even Gary Taubes, who recently wrote an op-ed in Newsweek called, “Why the Campaign to Stop America’s Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing,” which disparages the documentary and its lack of sound science, understands that exercise as a sustainable means to weight loss is a bit of a silly idea (especially if we’re considering the statistics the CDC puts out of just how much weight we all have to lose). I want to be clear that I do believe exercise can contribute to weight loss, but it’s inefficient when compared to how food consumption and a host of other things like diet, stress, toxins, prescription pills and socioeconomic status, affect weight. But again, I am not on the band wagon that is concerned with weight as a main indicator of health. So, I actually am an avid proponent of fitness, but not for weight-loss, but for health (both mental and physical). Exercise is integral to to a person’s health. This is something Taubes fails to mention in his piece where he is clearly obsessed with the fat on our bodies rather than our degrees of health. While he seems to believe he is an antagonist to the national anti-obesity dialogue, he is actually an ally. Both sides see fat as the enemy and care more about weight than about health, even though both hide behind the facade of health advocacy. When it comes down to it, Taubes recommends that Americans understand insulin levels, cut sugars and most carbs (even complex) to lose weight; the Weight of the Nation, despite its PC inclusion of info. on weight stigma, is at the end of the day a proponent of “eat less, move more” i.e. lose weight!
The thing is, I think many of us do know why we get fat. There is a science behind hormones (which can get fucked by endocrine disruptors and prescription pills) and yes, insulin, as Taubes proposes, can inhibit our bodies abilities to burn fat. This is something Dr. Mark Hyman also promotes along the TV circuit and is really nothing new. What needs to be clarified, and yet is consistently muddled, is that fat in and of itself is not a clear marker of health or disease.
So what does Taubes recommend? “…diets that are severely restricted in fattening carbohydrates and rich in animal products—meat, eggs, cheese—and green leafy vegetables are arguably the best approach, if not the healthiest diet to eat. Not only does weight go down when people eat like this, but heart disease and diabetes risk factors are reduced. Ethical arguments against meat-eating are always valid; health arguments against it can no longer be defended.”
While I agree that the data demonizing red meat – intrinsically – is skewed, Taubes is very selective not to include the boat loads of reputable research that shows eating a plant-based diet significantly reduces heart disease and diabetes risks. But what’s worse than this omission, is that he prescribes a diet for an entire population. This is precisely what we need to stop doing not only because, yes, there is a very important ethical (and political!) component dictating what and how we eat (at least, there should be!), but also because we are not all the same physiologically and our bodies – go figure – are different! That sort of thinking baffles me – it’s just like thinking that everyone should follow the MyPlate model which overtly recommends dairy intake and grain intake – both of which many of the population are intolerant of. What’s worse, is it again gets people accustomed to thinking they have to be prescribed a way of eating rather than empowered to think for themselves and to become political and ethical in the process, all on their own terms.
But what Taubes also fails to note is that the entire premise that we all need to be saved from this monstrosity that is obesity is a hoax. Put aside the fact that the stats are sketchy given the questionable tool used to diagnose us all – BMI – and focus instead on the idea that fat bodies are inherently unhealthy. This is just not true at all! Why do reputable health advocacy groups keep promoting this bullshit? For example, there’s the fact that a fat patient undergoing CABG in the state is significantly more likely to be alive several years later than is a normal-weight person. There’s also the fact that “overweight” has been shown to be protective in the over 65 population, and that “Class I,” or “moderate,” obesity carries the same risks as “normal” weight in that same population. It is only as weights rise more dramatically than simply “moderate” obesity that so too does risk. But if weight loss is not the answer to our health problems, what is? The single best thing any body of any size can do is move.
The fact of the matter is that we do not need to wage a war on obesity to improve the collective health of’ the nation. We do not, and should not, assign a scarlet letter to fat adults and children and make them the representative of what’s “wrong” with our society. We need to be adamant that people of all sizes deserve equitable treatment by law and by a human conscience. We all deserve to be healthful – yes, even those of us who are not part of the “crisis” by BMI ranking. We need to understand that what and why we eat is a complex web with sticky strings coming from culture, ethics, politics and that our size is dictated by another complex web including environment, genetics, access and more factors than we could possibly fathom. We need to FIGHT for the right for all of us to have peace in our minds and bodies, to be empowered to be whatever size our bodies land at when we are treating ourselves well and understand that not all of us have the means or will to do even that.
The Weight of the Nation is telling an old and tired fable and the only moral we get from the story is that our government still doesn’t know the complexity of the problem. And worse perhaps, is contributing wildly to a problem it has falsely defined.
The Cranky One