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HBO documentary series addresses country's obesity problem

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In a trailer for the new HBO documentary series "Weight of the Nation," a teenage girl sums up our country's obesity problem nicely. "You don't crave broccoli, and our generation has grown up craving a Big Mac," she says.

If that doesn't scare you, the litany of grim facts the series presents will.

More than two-thirds of American adults and nearly a third of children and teens are overweight or obese. Few of us get enough exercise, and many of us drink too much sugary soda and eat too many processed, fatty foods. It's costing the country about $147 billion in obesity-related health care costs, and we're staring at the real possibility that the next generation will live shorter lives than we do.

"We evolved in a world of want, where food is scarce and the ability to hold on to calories meant survival," says John Hoffman, executive producer of the series and vice president of HBO Documentary Films. "Now we live in world of plenty, where food is all around us. When we see food, we are compelled to eat it."

The HBO series, created in partnership with the Austin-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, urges viewers to take a realistic look at the fattening of our country — and do something about it.

With sobering case studies and interviews with health experts, it examines the causes and consequences of obesity. Many of those experts will be on hand tonight for the series' debut at a private screening in Austin.

The public can tune in via cable television or online at HBO.com starting May 14.

Obesity contributes to five of the 10 leading causes of death in America, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and kidney disease. Studies show that once you've gained weight, even if you lose it, your body will work to return to that previous high.

"If you understand how your body is fighting to get you back to that previous weight, you know what you're up against," Hoffman says. "You have to resist the urges to eat more, and you have to exercise."

HBO collaborated with the Institute of Medicine, in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, to make the series. It features interviews with Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and Susan Nix, assistant athletic director of the Round Rock school district.

The programs address knotty issues, including the small amount of physical education instruction most American high school students receive, despite the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' recommendation that they get an hour of exercise a day.

"We're not making this a priority in this country," Hoffman says. "We have challenges before us as a nation to get on a path to much better health. That means we look at the food we grow, food we manufacture, how pervasive marketing of unhealthy food is and how we have to renovate our own lives and the communities we live in."

Besides the four hour-long documentary films, the project includes a three-part documentary series geared toward families,12 bonus short films, a website, book and social media campaign. The Dell Foundation provided funding to distribute 40,000 free screening kits to community organizations around the country.

For more information or to watch a trailer of the documentary, go to hbo.com/theweightofthenation.

The first and second installments, "Consequences" and "Choices," will air starting at 7 p.m. May 14 on HBO. The third and fourth installments, "Children in Crisis" and "Challenges," will be shown starting at 7 p.m. May 15. The programs, available in English and Spanish, will air repeatedly throughout May on HBO.

They'll also be available free on HBO.com.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994