Published: May 8, 2012 Updated: May 9, 2012 9:17 a.m.

The toll an overweight society pays is large, especially for children. For a look at an Orange County teen who lost weight thanks to this program, click here


In an HBO documentary airing this month, America Bracho watches as chubby children play on an asphalt parking lot because they have no grassy park in their Santa Ana neighborhood. In another scene, her voice chokes with emotion as she talks with a mother worried about the obesity epidemic.

Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access and a physician in her native Venezuela, is featured prominently throughout the four-part series, “The Weight of the Nation,” which premieres Monday. The series was made in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine and offers an alarming look behind the statistics that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

Obesity by the numbers

Some facts from documentary “The Weight of the Nation,” airing on HBO on May 14-15:

10% – Proportion of parents with an obese child who seek medical help

$150 billion – Amount spent each year in the U.S. on obesity-related health costs

5% – Proportion of adults who meet the daily guidelines for physical activity

90% – profit margin of soda

She recently discussed the project from her downtown Santa Ana office, as neighborhood mothers attended a free exercise class.

Q. You’re featured in the documentary along with doctors from Harvard and Yale. How did you feel about participating?

A. We said, “We have to do this.” We want people to understand the place where you live, play and learn and work has everything to do with health. We want people to tell their own stories. We know we have been able to engage the community. We were able to share data from Orange County that shows the disparity; that in comparison with Irvine, Santa Ana not only has more poverty, but it has more obesity.

Q. How much time did you spend filming?

A. Almost one week. Then we took them places. They captured great stories of resilience and hope with the families. The last day we wanted for them to see something that the community calls “Cement Park.” We have several (parking lots) where the kids play. They have to wait until the last car is gone. We said that’s what we want them to see the last day. And guess what? It was raining. But we went there. There were several mothers and kids playing. (One) kid comes a little bit wet and sweaty and looked at the camera and said, “I know I shouldn’t be talking about this because I’m fat. I know that probably I’m not the best person to do it, but I love to play and I love to be with my friends and I only have this parking lot.” The crew was crying. We didn’t know if it was the rain or what, but it was so moving. As he finished talking, it was already dark and John (executive producer John Hoffman) said, “We just captured the spirit of the series. We are taking the spirit of the entire weight of the nation from Santa Ana. As we edit this, I promise you that Santa Ana will be represented. We owe it to that kid.”

Q. How serious is the problem of childhood obesity?

A. Obesity is the precursor of a lot of chronic diseases. You are looking at a nightmare from the financial and the medical point of view when these kids develop diabetes at 15 and end up being blind at 30 or having kidney problems. The other area of course is the emotional piece of having such a large group of kids excluded and stigmatized. The other impact we really need to think about is the economic impact of having people disabled at 30.

Q. Do you see denial within families about the weight of children?

A. I see denial at all levels. The kid that doesn’t want to talk about it or hides to eat. Families might say, “This is something he eats because he wants to and he’s not obedient,” or “Look at him, he only wants to be fat,” blaming the kid. Shame is playing a huge role in this. The parents tell him to stop eating without understanding that’s not enough. Behavior is a complex thing. That’s like saying, “Stop smoking. Start exercising.” The denial is also coming from the business sector when they think that profit is OK no matter how. It comes from the public sector when they say, “It doesn’t matter that we put all the liquor stores here and the parks over there.”

Q. What’s your message to the immigrant families you work with?

A. We came to this place so we can advance in life. In order to advance we need to pay attention to the health of our kids. … We are into the theory of love. I need you to love your kids with your hands, with a knife so you can cut the tomatoes. I want you to love your kids with your feet so you can walk. We need to create programs of affordable housing. We need to increase the salaries of people so they don’t need to work three jobs. We have to go the extra mile to support the families and transform the socioeconomic environment that is forcing these decisions.

Q. What do you think about food companies and advertising to children?

A. They say it’s all about exercise. If you eat only the french fries with 500 calories in the little bag and you walk for one hour, you expend 200 calories. Is the food industry expecting that we’re going to be exercising 24 hours a day? They need to play fair.

Q. You are a grandmother. What do you see going on with the diet and lifestyle of your grandchildren?

A. One of my granddaughters is in my house because our daughter went back to school and now is transitioning. I actually have to have these conversations on a daily basis: “Don’t use the car. The school is very close.” I offer vegetables to the little kid and she says, “I don’t eat that.” Then I put out the tomato. She says I don’t want to eat that. Here’s the choice: the tomato or the broccoli. Now she’s eating more and more. It’s really surprising what happens when you offer vegetables to a kid. They actually learn to eat them. It is the combination of support, humor and nonjudgmental behavior and access to the broccoli and tomato. I’m very proud of them. Right now, they are eating better.

Twitter: @cperkes

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