Oprah is officially getting in on the Biggest Loser genre of TV, starting with tonight’s premiere of Addicted to Food on OWN. It remains to be seen whether she can take on Bob and Jillian for ratings, but what we’re really wondering is whether she can take on America’s problem with obesity. Can she inspire audiences to lose weight? Will her show be a beacon of hope and source of instruction for the millions of Americans who are unhealthy, overweight, and driving themselves to early death and disease by foo, or will she simply provide entertainment that doesn’t really budge the scales? We’re hoping OWN’s brand of weight loss TV can do more for obesity than NBC.
Unlike shows like Biggest Loser and Thintervention, which tackle the struggle of weight loss with trainers, nutritionists, and doctors (and turn it into a competition for good ratings), OWN’s new show promises to tackle it with what Oprah does best: Talk. The ringmaster of OWN’s new show isn’t a personal trainer, nutritionist, or doctor — you’ve seen those all before, and bench presses are only so compelling. The real star of the show is “maverick therapist” Tennie McCartney, who will lead eight clients through a 42-day treatment at Shades of Hope, a treatment center in Texas. Like A&E’s Intervention or VH1′s Celebrity Rehab, the show is really about the horrors of addiction, and the drama of giving it up, which could easily turn it into more crappy reality tv. But, putting our faith in Oprah (which we realize is risky business), we’re hoping that it will be something else: A more genuine and useful insight into obesity (and eating disorders) as disease that requires emotional and physical treatment like any other life-threatening condition.
Researchers have pointed out that even public health messages about obesity place assume a naive understanding of what causes someone to be overweight: Just stop eating greasy food and soda, they seem to say; why not have a salad instead of a burger and fries? But for people who are seriously overweight (and not just trying to skim a couple of inches for bikini season), it’s not that simple. For them, food has become an addiction, and one that’s well-supported by friends, family, and especially the economy. While the government has taken certain pains to make some addictive substances more difficult to acquire (and abuse), there’s hardly much public support when it comes to making saturated fat unavailable to kids or getting processed foods off the streets. The FDA might crack down on factories that don’t maintain proper hygiene, but when’s the last time you heard of anyone busting the labs of Frito Lay or PepsiCo to try and keep their highly addictive substances off the market?
No one expects Oprah to get food manufacturers to change or convince politicians to stop subsidizing processed foods (although she could probably make more headway in those areas than most), OWN’s Addicted to Food could help change our thinking about what’s making America obese. Are obese people ultimately responsible for choosing what to eat and whether to exercise? Absolutely. Drug addicts, alcoholics, and sex addicts are responsible for their choices, too. But even if we frown on Tiger Woods for cheating on his wife and shake our heads at the consequences of Charlie Sheen’s obvious problem with drugs, we’re even harder on the obese, assuming that only laziness or stupidity could result in such gross imbalance of health.
Maybe OWN and its maverick therapist can change that perception, and teach us about the real bear behind our country’s battle with obesity; maybe not. But we hope that by showing that it’s more about calories in, calories out, Addicted to Food can get at least some of us on the right track.