TV Skeptic: 'Weight of the Nation' is light on balance about obesity
To me, there is an 800-pound gorilla looming in the background of "The Weight of the Nation," the four-part documentary that began on Monday and concludes Tuesday on HBO. It's a menacing presence that may be hard to spot among so many 300-, 400- and 500-pound Americans on screen, but I know it's there because not so long ago I was obese.
The unseen presence, I believe, is the role that insulin plays in storing body fat. In my case, tackling that beast led to dramatic weight loss and greatly improved health and fitness.
I started learning about the relationship between insulin and fat nearly three years ago when a loved one was diagnosed with a tumor on the pituitary gland that could cause Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by a rapid progression to obesity. When our family first got this diagnosis I frantically researched the condition and learned that this tumor can start a series of responses in the body’s endocrine system resulting in high levels of insulin, which causes excess fat storage.
Whenever insulin levels in the blood rise, the body stores fat. In most people insulin rises after a meal, and rises higher after meals with a high carbohydrate content, especially simple carbs like sugar, pasta or white flour.
There is debate among scientists, researchers, physicians, nutritionists and other diet experts over just what causes obesity. One side argues it's a simple matter of energy balance: "calories in vs. calories out." The claim is that the first law of thermodynamics requires that any calories that enter the system must either be metabolized, expelled or stored, and the obesity epidemic is the result of excess calories and too little exercise.
The other side — proponents of low-carb diets — argues that carbohydrates in the diet cause the blood sugar to rise, leading to fat storage. People eat more and exercise less because they are storing excess fat, not the other way around. The carb/glucose/insulin side says that if you drastically reduce dietary carb intake, then blood sugar and insulin levels stay low and the body will metabolize fat for fuel — including stored fat — leading to weight loss.
Cutting carbs is exactly what worked for me.
About a year after we got the tumor diagnosis (we were very fortunate an observant doctor caught the subtle signs of the tumor, a prolactinoma, early) I was told by my own doctor at a checkup that my blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides were good, but moving in the wrong direction. My health would soon be at risk, he said.
Armed with my new understanding of the role of blood sugar and insulin in fat storage I researched a number of diets and chose the Atkins plan, as it was the one that cut carbs the most and kept insulin levels down.
As a skeptic, and an advocate of science-based medicine and evidence-based diet, I felt like I was taking a leap of faith. Although there are numerous studies showing the effectiveness of Atkins compared with other diets, there is an enormous backlash against low-carb diets in the medical and nutritional communities.
"The Weight of the Nation" doesn't just take the "calories in/calories out" side of the debate, it proceeds as if there is no debate at all.
It does well enough in documenting the breadth and scope of the obesity epidemic. And, as an experienced carb-counter, I saw that nearly every bite of the food they blamed for obesity was high-carb: the very foods that cause insulin levels to rise and lead to increased fat storage.
In the seemingly endless galleries of fattening foods there was nothing for me to eat on a low-carb diet. Maybe I could toss the bun and eat the burgers; or eat the pizza toppings but skip the crust, other than that, the food that the documentary blames for the obesity epidemic is the same high-carb food that I avoid on a low-carb diet because of the insulin response. The documentary even points out that three-fourths of the calories that led to the obesity epidemic come from carbs.
I was most surprised to see Robert H. Lustig, the star of a viral video about the toxicity of sugar, featured in "The Weight of the Nation." He's one of the biggest proponents of the argument that it's the simple carbs (sugar) in the diet that cause obesity, not calories.
But he doesn't make that point here. And neither does "The Weight of the Nation," which never even considers the point.
As such, the documentary ran counter to my experience and therefore lacked the necessary balance of a sound documentary - or a good meal.
Photo: Food blamed for obesity epidemic: Mostly fast; mostly junk. Credit: Jessica Dimmock / HBO