The audience at the Crest Theatre last night wasn’t your typical movie-going crowd: elected officials, neurosurgeons, nutritionists, community organizers, and even the occasional organic farmer. No, they weren’t there for a Hollywood blockbuster, but for a screening of “The Weight of the Nation,” an eye-opening four-part documentary series presented by HBO and the Institute of Medicine.
“The Weight of the Nation” shines a light on America’s obesity crisis, its consequences for individuals, and the challenges it presents our society. The facts are staggering: over 63% of Americans are overweight or obese. Overweight and obese individuals are at much greater risk for diabetes, heart and lung disease, stroke, cancers, and other life-threatening and costly chronic illnesses.
Perhaps the most important message coming out of “The Weight of the Nation” is that the epic costs and devastating consequences of the obesity epidemic can be largely avoided. Not only are chronic diseases the main causes of death, disability, and high health care costs, they are all linked to being overweight and obese – and they are largely preventable.
Prevention means more than simply telling people to eat better and get more exercise. As anyone who has ever struggled with weight loss will tell you, it’s not that easy. Preventing obesity means advocating for a greater investment by our policymakers and businesses in our physical and social environments, such as increasing opportunities for everyone to eat healthy meals and exercise.
Unfortunately, some neighborhoods are breeding grounds for chronic disease and illness. Where there are few parks and safe sidewalks, little availability of affordable fresh produce, an abundance of fast food vendors and advertising for junk drinks, and where people spend hours in vehicles each week to get to work and school — that is where obesity hits hardest. In other words, where people live, work, go to school, and play, all matter when it comes to this epidemic.
While obesity may be a nationwide crisis, many of the solutions are decidedly local. Whether it is supporting fresh produce outlets in neighborhoods that currently lack them or working with neighbors and local officials to get sidewalks and lighting in neighborhood parks, everyone can play a role in making our communities healthier places to live.
What does a community-driven approach to fighting obesity mean? It means healthy school lunches and more physical education in our schools. It means more opportunity to buy healthy, affordable food. It means safer, more walkable neighborhoods. It means American ingenuity to get us moving and burning calories instead of spending much of every day in our cars and in front of televisions and computers.
Tackling the obesity epidemic requires an “all hands on deck” approach to improving our surroundings and our odds for avoiding obesity. It requires shifting away from viewing health as a service, a pill, or a surgery. Health happens by focusing on prevention. Fighting obesity means focusing on community-driven solutions, not just health-care driven ones.
Even if you missed “The Weight of the Nation,” you can watch the entire four-part series on HBO’s website and learn how to take action to combat this crisis. By taking a community-wide approach to improve opportunities for healthy living, we can be a healthier and more productive society.
Ed’s Note: George Flores, MD is the Program Manager for Community Health at The California Endowment, on behalf of the Health Happens Here with Prevention Partnership. The partnership includes The California Endowment, Prevention Institute, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, American Lung Association in California, American Cancer Society, ChangeLab Solutions, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Kaiser Permanente, and Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, with technical advice from the California Department of Public Health.