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From The Director, The Weight Of The Nation

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National
Institutes of Health (NIH)
Photo courtesy of NIH

Obesity has become one of the greatest health challenges facing Americans today. In May, a groundbreaking HBO documentary series on the U.S. obesity epidemic—The Weight of the Nation—featured National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. His remarks and those of others, plus 12 bonus short films, are available for viewing at Dr. Collins had this to say on the following:

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins interviewing for the HBO series The Weight of the Nation

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins interviewing for
the HBO series The Weight of the Nation.

Obesity's dangerous impact:

If you were told your child is at risk for cancer, that would get your attention. If you were told your child is at risk for some sort of brain disease, that would get your attention. Well, obesity ought to be on that list. If we don't succeed in turning this epidemic around, we are going to face, for the first time in our history, a situation in which our children are going to live shorter lives than we do.

The challenging complexity of obesity:

Obesity is an enormously complex problem, with inputs from several places. Genetics is one—we know that about 60-to-70 percent of the risks of obesity are inherited. If we don't now take this as an urgent, national priority, we are all—individually and as a nation—going to pay a very serious price.

Obesity, especially in the abdominal area, makes you resistant to your own insulin. So what happens? Your pancreas tries to keep up by making more insulin to keep your blood glucose from rising too high. Ultimately, it gets exhausted, and the cells that are making the insulin are now themselves sick, because of being over-stimulated. Then, diabetes ensues.

Dr. Collins and Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report

Dr. Francis Collins shows The Colbert Report host
Stephen Colbert what five pounds of fat looks like
— using a synthetic prop—as part of their
discussion of The Weight of the Nation.

The threat to our children:

We never thought that type 2 diabetes would occur in 10 or 12 year olds; but now it's not uncommon to see that. These are serious consequences. And the tendency to dismiss this or to, perhaps, even see it in some cultures as a norm, is getting in the way of recognizing this as a real public health emergency.

This is a tragedy. After all of these years of building up our health care in order that people are saved from premature disability and death, we could lose these gains. It could hardly be more serious, when you think about it in those terms. Do you want your children and your grandchildren to inherit a society where their hopes for a long and healthy life are not even as good as yours were?

The promise of research and public understanding:

We are not doomed to this situation. But it takes diverse and rigorous research to understand obesity and to identify interventions that work in the real world. The results from federally funded research can help to prevent and treat obesity and its complications.

The statistics are dramatic: More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, while nearly one-third of the nation's children and teens are overweight or obese. Obesity contributes to five of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.—heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, and kidney disease.

A National Epidemic That Weighs On Us All

In mid-May, a multi-part television series that takes a hard look at all aspects of obesity in the U.S. debuted on HBO and online. The Weight of the Nation included four documentary films, 12 bonus short films, an interactive website, an online social media campaign, a companion book, and screening kits for nationwide outreach to more than 40,000 community-based organizations.

Scientific guidance for the series was provided by members of the NIH obesity research task force*. NIH-funded research progress on obesity already includes:

  • finding effective lifestyle changes that can be implemented in communities to reduce weight, lower risk factors for heart disease, and prevent or delay type 2 diabetes
  • identifying new targets and pathways for prevention and treatment of obesity, including the role of sleep, and how bacteria in the intestine may have an impact on obesity
  • showing that exposure in the womb to maternal obesity or diabetes may increase the risk of obesity or diabetes in offspring, suggesting a critical period for intervention
  • investigating genetic factors contributing to obesity and its complications

*The NIH obesity research task force members that provided scientific guidance for the HBO series included the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK), the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The series is a presentation of HBO and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in association with the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente.

Summer 2012 Issue: Volume 7 Number 2 Page 2-3