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PCD Board Member Weighs in on HBO Series, IOM Report

Founding board member and contributing author to Preventing Chronic Disease (PCD) Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, was recently featured in The Weight of the Nation, a unique documentary series that premiered on HBO this month. The documentary — a collaboration between HBO and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — featured case studies and interviews with the nation’s leading experts as well as people struggling with obesity. The 4-part series took an in-depth look at the damage obesity is doing to our nation’s children and the major driving forces behind the obesity epidemic. Dr Kumanyika was featured in the series when it aired on HBO May 14 and 15.

Related to the series, IOM released Accelerating Progress on Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation. The report, released May 8, is IOM’s latest on combating the obesity epidemic. Authored by a team that includes Dr Kumanyika, the report focuses on strategies that various sectors of society can take to support individuals’ and families’ efforts to achieve healthy diets and physical activity levels. Dr Kumanyika is the chair of the IOM Standing Committee on Childhood Obesity and Prevention and was interviewed in the HBO documentary to glean information from her, and others, about her previous work and expertise.

PCD had a chance to speak with Dr Kumanyika about her involvement with the report and the documentary.

PCD: Why were you approached to be a part of the HBO The Weight of the Nation documentary?

Kumanyika: As you probably know, IOM was a key partner in producing the HBO films. I was approached by HBO in my role as chair of the IOM Standing Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention and also as a member of the Committee on Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention. I had opportunities to converse with the production team and to help clarify their understanding of certain issues as they educated themselves about obesity issues. I also referred them to several potential people to interview, including some Philadelphia organizations and agencies.

PCD: What parts of the series were you involved in and what topics did you specifically discuss?

Kumanyika: Comments that I made during an interview with HBO are used periodically in 2 of the films. In addition, some footage from a Philadelphia tour with the mayor, health commissioner, and health department policy director to highlight food access issues is included, and I was along on that tour. More of the Philly footage is in one of the bonus shorts — the one about obesity and poverty.

PCD: Was any of your work featured in the series?

Kumanyika: My work is not featured in the series directly. However, a major focus of our work at the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network relates to inequities in aspects of food marketing, ie, the targeted marketing of less healthful foods and beverages to African Americans. Within the overall picture of an obesity-promoting environment, higher than average availability and promotion of unhealthful foods makes it less likely, from a practical perspective and in terms of the exposure to promotional messages and events, that African Americans (compared with whites, for example), and particularly those in low-income communities, will be able to prevent excess weight gain, follow advice for healthful diets, or follow advice for weight control. My conversations with the HBO team about our findings and concerns in this respect were reflected in their decision to involve me in an exploration of food access issues in Philadelphia.

PCD: What do you hope this documentary will accomplish?

Kumanyika: To me, having a major entertainment company tell the story about obesity, and in partnership with IOM, CDC, and others, could be a real game changer for informing the population about the issues we need to address and for bringing people on board to generate and support solutions. I hope the HBO documentaries will get the word out widely and well and pave the way for those of us in public health to be more effective.

PCD: What do you think is the answer to remedying our nation’s obesity problem — is there a remedy?

Kumanyika: I had the opportunity to ponder this question over the many months of deliberations as part of the IOM Committee that released the report on May 8. I wholeheartedly recommend taking a look at this report to get a sense of how we can turn this epidemic around — in the population at large and also in the populations affected by inequities.

More about the report and documentary can be found by visiting the website for HBO: The Weight of the Nation and IOM: Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation.

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