This week in D.C., HBO premiered a new documentary examining the obesity crisis. “The Weight of The Nation” delves into why our country has become so staggeringly overweight.

One of the take-aways is that the epidemic is caused by issues larger than our occasional parenting fails. The reasons are complex and involve government regulation breakdowns and well-funded industry interests, according to the series, which airs beginning May 14th.

(Associated Press)

What’s not so clear, is exactly what.

I asked one of the series’ primary contributors, Marlene Schwartz, Deputy Director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, to discuss what parents are up against when it comes to their child’s nutrition and physical activity level.

This will be the first of two posts on our conversation.

Below, Schwartz talks about the need for parents to be aware of the environmental influences that are creating an unhealthy culture. The second post will focus on how a parent’s savvy choices can make a big difference to a child’s health.

The segment on childhood obesity was bracing, but does the focus on government regulation and food industry practices let viewers off the hook? What about a parent’s responsibility to choose food wisely and promote activity for their kids?

As a psychology researcher, I have seen evidence that people are very influenced by the environment. This isn’t to say that the environment completely dictates their behavior (just as our genes don’t completely dictate who we are) but Americans systematically err on the side of overestimating how much our actions are due to individual, deliberate decision making.

To push back against this inherent bias to focus on individual behaviors, this documentary is designed to point out the environmental influences. We can’t learn to overcome them unless we recognize they are there and acknowledge that they are influential. Only then can we work together to change them.

My position is that parents absolutely have the responsibility to choose food wisely and promote activity for their children, but the question we have to ask ourselves as a society is whether we have created an environment that supports parents in this task, or undermines them. I would argue that our current environment completely undermines parents’ efforts. We need the food industry to behave in a way that makes it easier, not harder, for parents to feed their children well. Right now, they are making it harder.

Are the filmmakers saying that these forces are too powerful to battle individually? Or, is the hope that a viewer might better understand them and work harder to provide their child with good nutrition and outlets for physical activity?

I don’t think the filmmakers are saying that it’s impossible to battle the forces, but the odds are similar to growing up without any parental support, in a poor neighborhood, surrounded by drugs and guns, and still graduating from Harvard. It isn’t impossible, but it is extremely hard and the odds are completely stacked against you.

If you listen carefully to the individuals who lost weight and have kept it off, you realize that it requires a huge amount of time and effort . They think through every food choice, weigh and measure their food, plan ahead, and spend a lot of time exercising. Keeping weight off means that you will no longer be able to be casual about what you eat, and you need to set aside dedicated time to exercise every single day.

So, the question this documentary raises for the viewer is: Do we accept that the environment is the way it is, and expect everyone to make heroic efforts to be in that 5 percent of people who succeed in losing weight and keeping it off? Or, do we decide that we need to change the environment so that it doesn’t take the time and energy comparable to training for the Olympics just to stay healthy in our country?

The families featured found help through formal programs. Is it possible to combat this trend on an individual level? How?

I think that the food industry is only going to change when they hear what the public is saying with their wallets. I can (and do) talk to my children about food marketing, misleading claims on food packages and how the food industry manipulates people into thinking that unhealthy foods are really good for them. But what my children are probably going to remember is not what I said, but what I did.

My kids know there are foods that I don’t think are good for them, and they know that I don’t buy them. This doesn’t mean that they can’t eat those foods on occasion at someone else’s house or at a party, but they are not part of our regular diet.

If I could say one thing to parents today it would be: Don’t be afraid to say “no” at the grocery store. It is hard the first few times, but eventually if you are consistent, you child will stop asking. It’s like the rat in the cage pushing the bar for food — the worst thing you can do is be inconsistent and say “no” only sometimes. The rat pushed the bar the most under the variable reinforcement condition. If you do not think a food is a good choice for your family, don’t buy it at the grocery store — ever. It doesn’t belong in your house.

Trust me. Your child will have the opportunity to eat cheese balls that leave orange residue all over your fingers at somebody’s house someday. You don’t have to get into a big discussion about what you think of those foods — you can just say “we don’t eat those foods.” Just like people from different religious backgrounds don’t eat pork or shellfish or cow. You can decide what your family eats and doesn’t eat.

What step do you take to make healthy choices in your home? Are they paying off?

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