The alarm bells sounding for the nation's obesity crisis will culminate in a documentary series on HBO that includes a look at weight-loss efforts in St. Louis.
"The Weight of the Nation," a four-part documentary, debuts Monday and Tuesday on the cable network. The series also will be available for free on the network's website.
The series "highlights this major public health problem that's causing an incredible impact on our economic, medical and psychological health in this country," Dr. Samuel Klein, founder of the weight management program at Washington University, said at a screening of the film Monday at the Danforth Plant Science Center.
Health care costs associated with obesity have reached $190 billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine. Two-thirds of adults and one-third of U.S. children and teenagers are overweight, a rate that has tripled since the 1980s. Researchers fear that children today could be the first generation with a shorter lifespan than their parents, based on the rise in obesity. It's estimated that one in three children born since 2000 will develop diabetes.
The network teamed with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations for the Weight of the Nation public health campaign aimed at alerting the country to its biggest medical crisis.
New numbers from the CDC show the obesity rate is expected to reach 42 percent by 2030. A report from the institute offers new recommendations for battling the epidemic. And the series showcases children and adults who struggle with their weight, including Yolanda Neal of St. Louis.
Neal, 41, joined the weight management program at Washington University about a year and a half ago and has lost more than 100 pounds through her lifestyle changes. Her weight-loss journey is featured in the documentary.
"I'm more conscious and responsible for good food choices," Neal said at Monday's screening.
Neal carries a calorie counter everywhere she goes. Before she eats out, she checks the restaurant's menu online to decide beforehand what she's going to order. Then she tries to order first, so as not to be tempted or influenced by her companions' choices.
Neal runs her own company, Healthy Soul Catering, based in the Homer G. Phillips Senior Living Community in St. Louis. She uses more herbs and seasonings to flavor her cooking instead of butter. Her soul food menu now excludes pork and includes macaroni and low-fat cheese. Instead of her favorite candy bars, she chooses squares of dark chocolate.
She said she's learned to appreciate the flavors of food.
"I can eat corn without drowning it in butter and salt," she said.
And she said she maintains a "clean house" free of snack food temptations.
"All that junk does not enter my house," she said. "I know at all times my house is a safe zone."
TOO MUCH SWEET TEA
The series highlights the first and best action people can take to prevent obesity — give up sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit juice. Soda, sports beverages, flavored water and juice are dense in calories but don't fill you up.
In the film, Neal said she used to consume 1,500 or 2,000 calories a day from sweetened tea alone.
The HBO documentary also includes a three-part series for kids called "The Great Cafeteria Takeover." The show, which premieres on Wednesday, features a group of children from New Orleans who convinced education officials and food industry executives to revamp their school lunch menu.
The Weight of the Nation documentaries were a natural follow-up to the network's earlier projects on addiction and Alzheimer's disease, said executive producer John Hoffman.
"The question of obesity kept coming up as something that is so critical to the future of public health," Hoffman said. "It could single-handedly bankrupt our health care system."
Hoffman said the difference with obesity is that the problems cannot be fixed through science alone.
"We need to really put all our energies into this thing, light as many fuses as we can and send up some flares to get the nation's attention," he said.