Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #275: “The Weight of the Nation”

I learned recently that among our neighbors in this valley community is producer John Hoffman, Founder and CEO of HBO’s “The Public Good Projects.” Among its noted productions is the 2012 series, “The Weight of the Nation.” On the chance that I might meet Mr. Hoffman at a holiday party, I decided to watch all four “Main Films.” In anticipation I took copious notes to share some good news with my readers as we embark on the New Year. Sadly, I was largely disappointed.

These feature-length films, all available now on YouTube, are: Consequences, Choices, Children in Crisis and Challenges. Each feature is divisible into finite chapters capable of being linked and shared. Each film is very well produced and deals thoroughly and comprehensively with “the problem” – in the sense that it accurately portrays the obesity epidemic in America, and accurately depicts the timeline in which it developed. There’s also a small segment of very good science on the “ancestral” POV, so again, I was hoping that the producers would reach the logical conclusion and make “the turn.”

I was hoping that, given the agreed-upon time line for the start of the dramatic upswing in weight, and this “ancestral” perspective, the producers would correctly “nail” the problem: Government’s insistence since 1977 (“The McGovern Commission Report”), and 1980 (the first iteration of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”), that we eat a low-fat (high carb) diet. The well-meaning bureaucrats and their minions had begun the largest public health experiment in history, encompassing virtually every American. Palpably, it has been a catastrophic failure.

My hopes were high. That pre-disposition is always my bias. Besides, if I don’t lean that way, the tsunami of bad nutritional advice out there would “swamp my boat.” So, my ears perked up when I heard, “What makes me frustrated bordering on angry is the fact that this [obesity epidemic] is preventable.” I think it was said by Robert Lustig, MD, the pediatric endocrinologist whose 2009 YouTube video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” went viral. Other quotes of his were, “…insulin is not working well at the level of the cells,” “…juice and juice drinks are as bad as soda,” and “sugar is where you start.” He also asked, “What changed in the last 30 years to make this obesity epidemic happen?” His answer: “In the last 30 years our DNA has not changed, but our environment has.” I waited for him to amplify, but alas, neither he nor I produced this film.

Lustig was practically the only ray of hope I saw in this four-plus-hour presentation. The preponderance of experts said stuff like, “The reason we have government in the first place is to solve problems collectively that we can’t solve individually.” (Thomas Farley, NYC Health Commissioner); “We could have eaten better. We don’t have to have steak, and we don’t have to have roast beef,” and “Eat less, exercise more, eat a balanced diet.” (Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health); “For all intents and purposes, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie; energy-in equals energy-out.” (Rudolph Leibel, Co-Director of the NYC Obesity Research Center at Columbia University); and “Follow a medically advised diet.” (Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University).

My favorite “quote” from my scribbled notes was from Courtney Rowe, Deputy Communications Director of the by-definition-compromised USDA: “While it is unfortunate that some in Congress choose to bow to special interests, the USDA remains committed to practical science-based standards for school meals that improve the health of our children.” N.B.: Rowe was Communication Director for the Senate Agriculture Committee when Dems controlled the Senate.

It would be less ironic if this political-pot-shot from Rowe in “Children in Crisis” (Part 3) hadn’t been followed in “Challenges” (Part 4) with these facts: 1) Government subsidy programs are heavily tilted toward the large commodity crops of wheat, corn, sugar and dairy, 2) livestock and poultry feed are subsidized indirectly by cheap feed: corn, soy and other grains, 3) “it is government policy to overproduce what we are already overeating,” and 4) 50% of U.S. farmland is planted in corn and soybeans). I think these points were made by David Wallinga, MD, at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, who deserves to be promoted (or fired). Eric Finkelstein, an economist at Duke University, added, “Obesity rates correlate with corn and soy production.” (low-cost HFCS and soy-based fats and oils).

But this “Documentary” (Commercial?) concludes with Daniel Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture and current Chair, Committee on Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention, saying in a voiceover, “To be healthy we need to eat healthy and exercise more.” The video clip shows a guy on a treadmill saying, “I needed to do something” (about weight). I think it was Mayor Dean of Nashville, TN, who added greenways for cyclists and parks in poor neighborhoods.

The old saw, “Your zip code matters more than your genetic code,” has now evolved to, “Being wealthy is not nearly as protective against obesity as it used to be.” I like it because it brings us back to how what we eat has changed, and again to David Wallinga: The increase in calories in our diet, he says, is attributable to “25% added sugars from corn, 25% added fat from soy, and 50% refined grains from corn starches, wheat, and the like.” The result: food costs ↓; health costs ↑.

N.B. “The Weight of the Nation” was produced by a partnership of “HBO Documentary Films and the Institute of Medicine, in association with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente.” That means they paid for these films. At least it wasn’t Cargill and ADM, directly


  1. Replies
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