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Drugs & Health Blog

HBO's "The Weight of the Nation": Obesity on the Brain

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Sara Bellum

SBB has talked a lot about how drug addiction is a complicated brain disease. But it’s not the only one. Obesity also involves the brain and is the subject of an HBO special that takes a serious look at this complex problem. The 4-hour documentary series “The Weight of the Nation” covered everything from fatty liver disease in overweight children to how humans are wired to find pleasure in food to how our food supply has changed over the years. If you missed it in mid-May, you can go to HBO’s Web site and see it for free.

To get a better idea of the obesity problem, check out this creative infographic, “Obesity: Complex But Conquerable,” from the Institute of Medicine.

Our Brains: Wired To Find Pleasure in Food

You may see overweight people and wonder, “Why don’t they just stop eating so much?” If the solution were that simple, then nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population would not be either overweight or obese.

NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., spoke in the HBO series about how brain science relates to obesity. She noted how early in human civilization, when a person’s survival depended on the ability to hunt and gather, our brains associated tasty food, like bananas, with pleasure, making it more likely that a person would climb a tree to get the fruit. Today, that powerful connection still exists between food and pleasure, except now we don’t have to work so hard for our food.

For some people, the rush of dopamine associated with eating a food they like may cause them to overeat impulsively—a brain reaction they cannot control, according to Dr. Volkow. It's a similar response to what happens in drug addiction when people compulsively seek and use drugs despite the negative consequences.

Nature AND Nurture

The documentary emphasized that our society—with its overabundance of fast food restaurants, massive portion sizes, and schools serving foods like French fries and pizza—makes it easy for people to make poor food choices. To reverse this bad health trend, we need to change our environment and make better choices.

Our stomachs, livers, and hearts aren’t the only organs affected by obesity—the brain also takes a hit. Dr. Volkow said, “Obesity negatively affects the function of the brain. The greater the problem of obesity, the less activity in areas of the brain that are extremely important for cognitive (thinking) operations.”

Find out more about what other experts from the National Institutes of Health had to say about obesity, and preview a clip from the documentary:

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


While I agree that schools play a vital role in the health of American children, and I cannot argue that school lunches are much to be desired, schools are not to blame for the obesity crisis in America. Incoming Kindergarteners are already breaking overweight and obesity records...and they have not even been to public school yet!!! The parent in the clip mentioned the schools are responsible for the health of their child. Um..correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn't we hold parents responsible for their own children? Reality check..Mom, you don't have to buy the school lunch!!! I pack lunches every morning for my family, all of which would have to resort to school lunches or take out if I did not. In doing so I control the fat, calories, sodium, sugar and fruits and vegetables that my family consumes. School lunch programs are at the mercy of our own government. First they cut school budgets, then they regulate the foods allowed and then only provide foods that are processed and full of sodium and fat. Why aren't we pointing fingers in that direction?

Bottom line is, it takes a village to raise a child. Parents, school systems, our government all need to take a step back and look at the real picture. It is about the kids and their health. We know there is a crisis and we know the answer lies in good education, good nutrition, access to physical activity and support and encouragement from family and caregivers. Can't we get along...for the sake of the kids?

i think is the food that we are eating now a days and why is it approved by the guys approving it... well depends on us now on what we intake... thanks for sharing [commercial link removed, per guidelines]