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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
April 27, 2012

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‘Weight of the Nation’
NIH Collaborates on HBO Obesity Project

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NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (r) films part of HBO series.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (r) films part of HBO series.

One-third of American adults are obese. Another third are overweight. How did this happen? And how can we, as a nation, return to a healthy weight?

To help illustrate the answers—and to show the science of obesity and NIH’s efforts to combat the obesity epidemic—NIH has collaborated with HBO and major research and health organizations to develop The Weight of the Nation, a documentary series and public education initiative that spotlights this urgent public health problem.

“If we don’t succeed in turning this epidemic around, we are going to face, for the first time in our history, a situation where our children are going to live shorter lives than we do,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who appears in the full-length films. “It takes diverse and rigorous research to understand the causes of obesity and to identify interventions that work in the real world. The results from federally funded research, as seen in these films, can help to prevent and treat obesity and its complications.”


The project consists of four documentary films to air on HBO on May 14 and 15; a 3-part series for families, with the first part airing May 16 on HBO Family; 12 short films, including one on NIH; and a nationwide community-based outreach campaign. Films will be available free on and through some television carriers. Segments of the series will also be screened at events around the country, including one at NIH on May 8 (see sidebar).

An HBO crew spent 2 days on the NIH campus, documenting how researchers are trying to understand, prevent and treat obesity. HBO producer John Hoffman talked with Collins about NIH’s efforts to learn about and combat obesity and talked with NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow about obesity and how behaviors may be regulated by reward pathways in the brain.

“When it comes to America’s health, there are problems which must be confronted, even if they make us uncomfortable, frighten us or are so daunting we don’t know where to begin,” said Hoffman, who previously worked with NIH on The Addiction Project and The Alzheimer’s Project, collaborating with NIDA and NIAAA on the former and NIA on the latter. “With The Weight of the Nation, HBO is again proud to stand together with the NIH, as we step forward to…hopefully reverse the obesity epidemic.”

Collins is a recurring spokesman

Collins is a recurring spokesman in the HBO series, appearing in all televised segments.

HBO also filmed several NIH grantees, as well as people struggling with obesity, representatives from local governments, health care providers and many others.

Leaders of the NIH obesity research task force from NIDDK, NHLBI, NICHD and NCI provided scientific guidance for The Weight of the Nation films and screening kits, which will be available to up to 40,000 health centers and community groups. These groups, and others who sign up on the web page, will get copies of the films and guidance on how to use elements from the project to assist in their organizations’ weight-control efforts.

HBO also developed a short film on NIH, visiting the Clinical Center. The crew followed Dr. Kevin Hall of NIDDK and Dr. W. Kyle Simmons of NIMH and the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. Available on, the film follows their study of the effects of reduced fats versus reduced carbohydrates on both metabolism and the brain’s reward pathways.

The crew also followed a participant in Hall and Simmons’ study, Ed Norris of Washington, D.C., as he spent time in the Clinical Center’s metabolic clinical research unit. Though Norris is no fan of the blood draws or the isolation of the metabolic chamber—where he spent several 24-hour sessions—he found reward in what he was learning about his own body.

“Finding out about myself, what makes my body go and how I can lose weight and remain at a sustainable weight was really interesting,” he said.

Norris joined the study partly because he’d seen family members and friends suffer from heart disease, diabetes and cancer and wanted to do what he could to extend his own life, for himself and his family.

Norris hopes he helps people by participating in the HBO series. “We have our stigmas, especially African-Americans—a lot of us are afraid to go to the doctor,” he said. “Hopefully, I can convince some people to come and learn more about themselves and how to be healthier. There are a lot of things that might be preventable. I want people to take some steps.”

You’re Invited to Advance Screening, May 8

The NIH community is invited to an advance screening of a film of the HBO documentary series The Weight of the Nation. It will be held Tuesday, May 8, 2:30-4 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10. There will be introductions by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and HBO producer John Hoffman. A panel discussion with Hoffman and NIH obesity experts follows the screening. For more information, contact Maggie McGuire at (301) 594-5789 or


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