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

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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:

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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