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SBS series ‘The Obesity Myth’ seeks to blow assumptions apart

It’s easy to think of obesity as something that’s entirely personal when we see how bodies are spoken about in the media, and how people who are overweight or obese are spoken to. Their relationship to their body is defined by a “personal struggle” and a “battle against the bulge”, while they’re shamed for not having more discipline and “self control”. If a person is obese or overweight, we’re very happy to lay the blame entirely at their feet.

While it’s true that there’s little more personal than our own bodies, it’s also true that obesity has for several decades been a significant national health issue, and one that we’re dealing with particularly poorly.

Obesity-related health problems now cost Australia $9 billion each year, and it’s said that we may soon see a generation of Australians who die at a younger age than their parents, largely due to rapidly increasing rates of obesity.

As is often the case with these public health documentaries — the most prominent recent examples of which are ABC’s Changing Minds and Keeping Australia Alive  SBS’s The Obesity Myth starts off by rattling off these kinds of startling facts. A voiceover, provided by actor Tara Morice, tells viewers than 25% of Australian adults are clinically obese, while two in three of us are overweight.

The three-part documentary series then turns its focus to individual doctors and patients who are at the coalface of obesity treatment. It borrows a lot from those public health documentaries mentioned before — by interspersing talking heads explaining the scientific principles behind disease and treatment with stories of people who are directly and personally affected — but finds a new focus in obesity.

The leading figure in the series is Dr Joe Proietto, head of the Weight Control Clinic at Austin Health. He is seeking to reframe Australia’s understanding of obesity as a chronic disease.

There’s not really one “obesity myth” the program is seeking to blow apart, but several that Proietto and his patients want to prove entirely false. Given that obesity wasn’t a public health issue just a few decades ago, our assumptions are rudimentary, so challenging them remains a significant task.

Most of Proietto’s patients weigh more than 200 kilograms, and he offers them a combination of dietary and medication measures to help them lose weight. If those measures fail, the patient will then be put on a waiting list for bariatric surgery. It’s life-saving surgery for many of these patients, but a lack of financial support to obesity treatment means waiting lists can be for many months or even years.

There are patients highlighted at all stages of their treatment, from those starting out on a weight loss diet and experiencing a hellish internal struggle with their impulses, to those who are struggling to keep weight off with or without appetite suppressants. Then there’s a man who has lost significant weight, but is dealing with a potentially lethal foot infection as a result of his obesity-related diabetes.

Treating obesity is shown to be incredibly difficult: while there are many success stories, one particular patient had been seeing Dr Proietto for four years and despite concerted efforts had so far only managed to lose 15 kilograms.

The series also touches on the reasons particular patients are obese; whether they have a particular genetic marker, or have suffered some significant trauma. Pure laziness or greed is never really a driving factor.

The science behind hunger, and the genetic conditions that lead to obesity, isn’t broadly understood in the community, even though the majority of Australians have some struggle with overeating at some point in their life. And even if the science were better known, it wouldn’t necessarily do a great deal to curb our obesity rates. As with most public health issues, understanding and awareness is no substitute for investment in effective treatment and preventive measures.

The desire to eat certain foods in large quantities is, for many people, an absolute compulsion to which they’re genetically predisposed, and shown to be such in The Obesity Myth. But unlike a compulsion that may be part of a drug addiction, high-fat and sugar food is one that’s incredibly easy to assuage. Most Australians can now visit a fast food restaurant within just a few minutes and purchase a feast for just a few dollars.

The Obesity Myth is a frequently moving and eye-opening series. As a call to governments to invest in treatments and research to prevent the expensive health problems that flow on from obesity, it could be effective. I’m not entirely convinced it needs to be three full-hour episodes to get its point across — the individuals highlighted are mostly dealing with very similar issues — but it’s the type of TV show that might just open up significant conversations about our collective response to obesity.

The Obesity Myth is on SBS from Monday, September 4 at 7.30pm

10 responses to “SBS series ‘The Obesity Myth’ seeks to blow assumptions apart

  1. It is pleasing to me that there are people like those above who seem rational. Who can see through the obfuscations of the food giants and some medicos. If we had a benign dictatorship all fast food outlets would be banned. Instead of struggling to finance the spiralling health costs we would provide a level of care based on the lifestyle of the patient. The sine qua non of health professionals’ profile would be healthy weight . How often do we see obese hospital personnel?

    We must always keep in mind that, ultimately, the Health Professionals rely on ill- heath for their crusts. I was one. I often mused that Big Food, Big Tobacco, Big Farming and Big Sugar were my paymasters.

    Education is a problem. The enemies’ tentacles are omnipresent. As advisor to the health committee at an otherwise (according to Ofsted) outstanding school, I recommended that the sugar confections be dropped by the tuck-shop in favour of nuts, carrots, fruit and milk. Not possible! Profits from tuck-shop needed for sports. The school even stopped a milk van that started to sell bottles of milk to the kids at break because it cut into sales of tuck. And here in Australia right now MacDonald’s, vouchers are awarded for school-work at my kids’ schools.

  2. The entire premise of this mini-series was that people are obese due to their genes, not their greed and laziness. So why, then, was every patient sent home with a dietary plan and grilled as to what wrong foods they had eaten when they failed to lose the expected amount of weight between appointments? The doctors and the producers of this series are contradicting themselves.

  3. Read Dr Gundry “The Plant Paradox”, see YouTube for info by Dr Jason Fung and sbs for Dr Michael Mossley on Fasting then get professional help to implement a plan that actually works for you. If a mechanic couldn’t fix your car after 6-10 years why would you keep taking it to him?

  4. Bariatric surgery is both deemed to be life-saving and covered by Medicare (albeit partially) in this country?!

    What a farce, that those who have chosen to destroy their bodies are granted yet another opportunity to suck up the funds of the taxpayer!

  5. An extraordinary indulgence.
    The only myth that needs to be refuted, is that Obesity is a chronic disease that requires medical intervention.
    The only people served by this, are those in professions that will financially benefit from this definition.

    Obesity and it’s prevention and management is straightforward (but admittedly very difficult) and requires no new or revolutionary interventions or insights.

    It requires, clarity, commitment and persistence with the simplest things…eat healthy food and stay active..Most people know what this means, but might need a little help doing it.

    It’s not that complex.

  6. I’ve seen the promos for the show but can’t see myself watching it as I find it cringe-making. I doubt there is much to learn that we don’t already know. Also the feel-good premise of it being out of personal control is no longer tenable. Thinking back to childhood in the 60s and there was perhaps one or two (maybe 5%) of a school class showing obesity. The thing that has changed is mostly diet; even less exercise is not as important as the whole fitness industry tries so hard to make us believe (anyone with a weight problem must primarily focus on their diet without which exercise is pointless) .

    The desire to eat certain foods in large quantities is, for many people, an absolute compulsion to which they’re genetically predisposed, and shown to be such in The Obesity Myth. But unlike a compulsion that may be part of a drug addiction, high-fat and sugar food is one that’s incredibly easy to assuage. Most Australians can now visit a fast food restaurant within just a few minutes and purchase a feast for just a few dollars.

    Save us from such lame excuses. It is only a “disposition” not any kind of inevitable result. And there is no reason not to enjoy food: just look at the French who are the least obese/overweight amongst developed nations (except for Japan & Korea) yet they enjoy their food much more than any Anglosphere fatty does. Yet the ridiculous myths continue, and people and media stories continue to joke that they will “load on the kilos” on a trip to France. The reality is if you spend a month or longer in France eating as the locals do you will lose weight, and perhaps come away with a new appreciation of food that is better for you too. Oh, and even “fast food” in France is healthier, here is a comparison:

    From documentary “Global Junk Food” directed by Camille Le Pomellec, a production of Babel Doc/Thomas Ellis; 2015; (aired SBS on 03 August 2017)

    [Ingredient – France – India]

    McDonalds McChicken (burger):
    Sugar; 2g 5g

    Filet of Fish (fishburger)
    Sat. Fat 3g 6.4g

    Sat. Fat 2g 6.1g

    Sat. Fat 2g 11.5g

    KFC Fries:
    Salt 0.1g 0.95g

    KFC Hotwings:
    Fat 7.23g 22.96g

    1. Yes, I’d agree and everything you said is correct except for: “exercise is not as important as the whole fitness industry tries so hard to make us believe (anyone with a weight problem must primarily focus on their diet without which exercise is pointless) “. Unless of course we’re ok with muscle and function loss. Atrophy is a problem in and of itself, esp as people age. Thus exercise (inc. resistance training) is just as important as diet; in essence, lifestyle.

      1. No. I said “not as important as” and it is perfectly correct. There is a shocking confusion about this issue and it remains a major block to improvements in the lives of many obese/overweight. People are (mis-)led to believe they have to “work out”, do jogging (!) or pilates or whatever fad is being promoted . Where I live is infested with gyms etc but the depressing sight I see every day (as I walk past) is the hipsters trundling out of their gym and straight into their oversized SUV for their, you know, couple of hundred metres to home. No accident that the fitness industry rose at exactly the same timeline as obesity epidemic began (Jane Fonda videos etc, late 70s early 80s) and that one could almost say one is “causative” (if looking at correlations); not so silly since it peddled the false view, perhaps by de facto suggestion, that no matter what you ate you could be as svelte as a then-middle-aged Jane simply by going to the gym once o twice a week. How do you think that has worked out for the generations who have done it? You think the French took up this nonsense in the 70s/80s? It is true they have slowly succumbed, just as they have also adopted more and more of the Anglosphere diet (sugary breakfast cereals!)–and guess what? Their obesity levels are increasing too.
        Of course one needs physical exercise but that doesn’t mean any industrially-organised nonsense but simple stuff like leaving that SUV at home, and walking around (including, if necessary, a forced-march of the kids to school instead of in the back of an SUV). But first and vastly, vastly more important is to get the diet right; and that doesn’t mean going on a “diet” but establishing a permanently healthy eating habit that can be lifelong.
        It’s why I won’t be watching the SBS show–because I know (from the promos but also just experience) that it will sow as much confusion as enlightenment, and it drives me to grind my teeth.

  7. The elephant steadfastly remains in the room when discussing the childhood obesity crisis.
    No one is addressing the issue of the heavily and emotionally marketed Follow-on Infant Formula – both on prime time TV and chemist/supermarkets outlets, which WHO deemed unnecessary and costly back in 2013.
    WHO is explicit: “The Organization further maintains that as well as being unnecessary, followup formula is unsuitable when used ……… from six months of age onwards. Current formulations lead to higher protein intake and lower intake of essential fatty acids, iron, zinc and B vitamins than those recommended by WHO for adequate growth and development of infants and young children”.
    Please, can the medical profession, state and federal health authorities stand up and be seen to be actively addressing this issue – even though it is a multi-million dollar industry. Companies marketing Toddler Formulas continue to loudly, unnecessarily play on parents emotions to provide the “best” for their toddlers when water or ordinary milk (after 12 months) would be far more healthier.

  8. This is the biggest issue facing society forget the housing crisis,isis,the mad korean overeating is the number one and of course its been understated we are eating more than when we had to shovel 16 tons of coal now we do nothing and eat more even the act of food gathering only requires an effort of the jaw.
    But do the wall st thing and follow the money and you see why the conversation is not being had the money in food is massive and a visit to a hospital and you will quickly see that the medical industry is thriving because of the fat epidermic so for the economy its win win all the way round. Unfortunately there is no money in food reduction and physical activity and the medical industry would be halved if not quartered if the health issues related to over eating and lack of regular exercise were removed but unfortunately capitalism dosn’t work like that


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