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Why they’re fat -- and what they’re trying to do about it

Times Staff Writer

The daily gloom that many obese people endure is almost impossible to comprehend for the never-heavy. Struggles with irresistible urges to eat, weight-related health problems and embarrassment aren’t always understood or received with sympathy; “just stop eating” is the simplistic advice usually offered by people who haven’t a clue.

“Fat: What No One Is Telling You,” a new 90-minute PBS documentary, offers a more compassionate take on this thorny issue continually in the news. With 66% of Americans considered overweight and 32% obese, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fat doesn’t discriminate along socio-economic lines. As for the “What No One Is Telling You” part, that applies only if the buckets of information and abundant dire warnings about this crisis have somehow failed to register.

Narrated by the “Today” show’s Meredith Vieira, the program introduces people in various stages of obesity, most on some path to shedding pounds. There’s actress Mary Dimino, whose sweaty treadmill confessionals reveal her years of yo-yo dieting before she was jolted into a healthful lifestyle by her mother’s cancer. The regimen is working -- she’s slimmed down to 148 pounds from a high of 256. At 513 pounds, high school student Rocky Tayeh contemplates gastric bypass surgery, much to his family’s dismay (they chide him for taking the easy way out). Working couple Carla and David Hurd are committed to getting healthy together in a comprehensive program that has them seeing trainers, nutritionists and psychologists.

Between glimpses of arduous workouts and mealtime quandaries are soulful gut spills about being fat. Tayeh wonders if he’s going to become what many see as the obese person’s inescapable destiny: “that depressed, lonely person watching TV and eating food every day.” Carla Hurd admits that although she knows she should go for a walk, she’ll opt for ice cream instead.

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“There’s something crazy that is not figured out yet with this whole obesity thing,” says Rosie Delhi, a retired principal who opted for bariatric surgery. “Because there’s something haywire.”

She’s right. Doctors, scientists and health experts are learning about genetic, hormonal, psychological and environmental components of obesity, but much is still baffling. Various professionals paint a bleak picture of successful weight loss, noting that our bodies are programmed to hang onto fat and conserve energy. The environment has become a co-conspirator, offering rich, fattening, inexpensive foods and few incentives to be physically active.

A troubling aspect of “Fat” is the pass it gives to bariatric surgery, increasingly the choice of the severely overweight, including teenagers.

Dr. Lee Kaplan, associate professor of medicine and director of the Weight Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, offers a caveat that it’s no panacea and that only 5% of people achieve a normal weight following gastric bypass.

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Yet there is no discussion of the surgery’s serious side effects or the fact that weight can be gained back.

There’s also no acknowledgment of the albeit small segment of the population who manages to keep weight off without surgery. What can we learn from this group?

Tayeh is shown months later, ecstatic at losing 147 pounds post-surgery and hopeful about his future. Dimino’s epiphany is how great she feels mentally and physically -- but it comes at a price: She works out three hours a day. Who ultimately succeeds is anyone’s guess.

Vieira, summing up the grim truth, says most never lose weight, and most who do never keep it off. “It can be done,” she says, “but the challenge is enormous.”

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jeannine.stein@latimes.com

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‘Fat: What No One Is Telling You’

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Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, followed at 10:30 by a half-hour discussion.

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)


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