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.