The burden of obesity: Film lays it on the line

“The Weight of The Nation," an HBO documentary series, takes a hard look at the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
“The Weight of The Nation,” an HBO documentary series, takes a hard look at the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Vivia Armstrong responded to an ad about obesity a couple of years ago.

At the time, Armstrong, living in southwest Atlanta, knew all about weight problems. Being heavy is the only kind of life she has ever known.

She described her struggle to GHN in an interview before the Atlanta premiere of “The Weight of the Nation,’’ an HBO documentary about obesity in which she appears.

“I’ve never been thin,’’ Armstrong said. “I take out a lot of my stress through eating.’’

Growing up in Chicago, Armstrong, now 28, lost her father when she was 10. Her mother worked occasional odd jobs as a single mom, and fast food became a standard meal. The neighborhood wasn’t a good place to exercise.

Armstrong’s weight rose to the 300-pound range. She has had high blood pressure since she was 11.

Physical education classes at school were ‘‘humiliation hour,’’ she said. “I was seen as the fat girl.’’ She hated going to the doctor.

Every decision she made — about travel, work, etc. — had to take her weight into account.

When the ad led to an interview before HBO’s cameras, Armstrong said, she wanted above all to be honest about her condition.

Honesty is a central feature of “The Weight of The Nation.’’ The documentary series, debuting Monday on the cable network, takes a hard look at the obesity epidemic in the U.S., exploring causes, effects and possible solutions.

Jarring facts

More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese –- a trend that has increased since the 1980s. It’s an expensive condition: Obesity-related health care costs reach $150 billion annually.

And the obesity rates may grow even higher. Even now, Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity among the states. Regionally speaking, obesity rates are highest in the Southeast.

It hits low-income and minority neighborhoods the hardest, those where fast-food restaurants proliferate, large grocery stores are scarce, the streets are often dangerous, and there are no parks or playgrounds.

“Obesity is a costly, serious and widespread problem,’’ Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, told a Carter Center audience before the Thursday screening of Part 4 of the documentary series. But he also said there are ‘‘real glimmers of hope’’ — programs that work.

“The Weight of the Nation’’ is a collaboration among HBO, the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, along with Kaiser Permanente and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

An executive producer of the series, John Hoffman of HBO, said before the screening that it represented a unique partnership on a public health campaign.

“The public health community came to us’’ to explore obesity, he said.

The film makes strong use of statistics, such as the fact that less than 3 percent of the nation’s farmland is growing fruits and vegetables. And while soft drinks have a 90 percent profit margin, fruits and vegetables have a 10 percent margin.

“Diabetes follows obesity as night follows day,’’ Frieden says in the film.

But the HBO series also tells encouraging stories –- of an Arkansas company creating a wellness program, a Nashville mayor pushing anti-obesity campaign.

And then there are subjects such as Vivia Armstrong, “We treat them with great honor and respect,’’ Hoffman said.

Dr. Christopher Griffith, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, said the film ‘’sends a wake-up call.’’

“Obesity robs people of hope and ambition,’’ Griffith said. “It leads to depression, to diminished self-esteem.’’

Solutions presented in Part 4 of the documentary include instituting new employer exercise and wellness programs; providing better food choices in schools; walking programs for children and adults; adding parkland and sidewalks; bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to fast-food-dominated neighborhoods.

Less judgment, more action

Armstrong said she didn’t really know what to expect when she responded to the ad. “They were looking for people who were obese or had been obese,’’ she said to GHN. It was only when she was called in to be interviewed that she found out HBO was involved.

How did seeing herself in the documentary make her feel?

“When I first saw myelf, I laughed. The next part of the film, I cried.’’

“It was me being so extremely vulnerable,’’ she said. “It’s hard to watch.’’

But she also said, “I was hoping it would help somebody, a young child.’’

Armstrong has had to learn how to cook and exercise. “You still need to learn that you need to eat to live, not live to eat. When you get older, it gets harder.’’

Those without weight problems should ‘‘not be so quick to judge,’’ she said. Part of the problem with some people is genetic.

She said she has tried different diets, foods and programs, some of which have been too expensive. She normally works as a marketer but is between jobs right now.

Armstrong recently got health insurance through the health reform law provision that established ‘‘high-risk’’ pools for people with pre-existing conditions. “I was denied plenty of times’’ by health insurers, she said.

She then found out she was allergic to several foods, including tomatoes and oranges.

Since the filming, she has been exercising, mostly doing water aerobics. “It works for me,’’ she said. She has lost 20 pounds.

She said she still needs to do more planning when it comes to meals. But she believes being consistent with exercise is the key.

Hoffman says Armstrong shows the emotional side of coping with obesity. “She opens up in a very profound way,’’ he told the audience after the screening. Americans have not heard enough from people who struggle with their weight, he said.

Armstrong told the audience, “It’s an ongoing struggle, but it’s possible, it’s achievable.’’

The documentary series will be available online at, and thousands of screening kits are available to community and school organizations as well. Here’s a link to the trailer.