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What HBO Can Learn from Our Fathers

HBO’s much-anticipated documentary series “The Weight of the Nation”, aired on May 14th and 15th, generating many conversations about the obesity epidemic in America. As a registered dietitian I am familiar with the statistics and research on obesity and chronic disease in this country. I expected that an HBO project would reframe the way we currently approach health in an exciting and innovative manner. In that sense it missed the mark and as I struggled to find a way to articulate how and why. I found a fuller explanation by coupling the film with the Jewish tradition. Pirkei Avot, the portion of the Mishnah known as Ethics of Our Fathers is commonly read on Shabbat afternoons, especially during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, precisely when “The Weight of the Nation” aired. One of my favorite passages has three simple clauses that unexpectedly bore meaning on my viewing experience.

“Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man for the side of merit.” (Ethics 1:6)

1) Pithiness

Pirkei Avotis known for pithy rabbinic statements. Its concise and direct messages make it one of the more easily memorable and recognizable portions of the Mishnah.

“The Weight of the Nation”, on the other hand, is a comprehensive series, and amidst all of its complexity it fails to offer a clear message. The film features leading experts and addresses many important topics like the marketing of junk food to kids and the poor quality of school lunches but falls short of empowering it viewers to take action, voice their discontent and alter a political landscape which reinforces the status quo. This seemed like a missed opportunity to promote real change.

“Assume for yourself a master”

2) Registered Dietitians

“The Weight of the Nation” acknowledges that obesity is the result of multiple factors, but still suggests that diet and lifestyle are the most powerful tools for individuals to take charge of their health. Here is another area where “The Weight of the Nation” misses the boat. I was excited to see the faces of many experts from leading government and consumer agencies like the Center for Disease Conrol, National Institutes of Health and Center for Science in the Public Interest, but where were the nutritionists and dietitians who devote their careers to teaching people how to cook healthfully, how to navigate the supermarket aisles and how to customize meal plans to suit their health needs and dietary preferences? Amidst all of the MPHs, JDs, MDs, and PhDs, where were the trusted nutrition experts in this four-hour series? As a registered dietitian I feel particularly sensitive to this issue, and believe that anyone trying to address health issues through dietary change would benefit from finding a nutrition “master.”

“Acquire for yourself a friend.”

3) Friendship

On this count, the film got it right. In “Choices,” the second segment of the documentary, I was glad to meet Rhoda and Elana, two middle-aged friends who share their weight loss success story. Each has lost over 100 pounds and has maintained it by vigilant calorie counting, vigorous exercise and very committed friendship. They completely changed their behaviors by supporting one another, holding each other accountable to a walking regimen and sharing in each other’s successes. While friendship alone won’t solve the nation’s health crisis, it will vastly improve individuals’ quality of life and sense of wellbeing, and I was glad to see this included in the series.

“Judge every man for the side of merit”

4) Fat Stigma

The very title of the series, “The Weight of the Nation,” rather than say, “The Health of the Nation” does very little to advance the cause of fat acceptance. Fat people face discrimination at every level of our society and with two-thirds of American adults now classified as overweight or obese, perhaps it’s time to rethink things. Researchers like Linda Bacon, who promotes a Health at Every Size model focusing on health instead of weight, provides an alternative that could have easily made its way into the four hours of footage. There are fat people who are fit and thin people who are not. It seems irresponsible not to explain to an already-biased society that physical appearances can be deceiving.

For all of its weaknesses, HBO’s “The Weight of the Nation” has generated important conversations that can help shape the future of health in this country. Viewed through the lens of Jewish tradition we learn that sometimes by looking to the past we can find relevant ways to reframe the present.

Rebecca Finkel is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in nutrition and cinema studies. She lives in Seattle where she enjoys hiking, sunsets and rainbow chard.

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