Local community members Thursday expressed opinions as varied as they were heartfelt about how to solve “our big problem” — Alabama’s unsavory ranking as one of the fattest states in the country — after watching the first part of a documentary about the nation’s growing obesity epidemic.
About 30 people from Calhoun and surrounding counties attended the 7 p.m. screening of HBO’s “The Weight of The Nation.” Afterward, they participated in a discussion, led by The Star and a panel of health and education officials, about how to address obesity in their own communities.
And while different people had different ideas about exactly what it takes to maintain a healthy weight, there was also underlying consensus.
“There’s no one easy answer,” summed up Miriam Gaines, director of the state Obesity Task Force. “But the whole package is so exciting when you start working on it.”
The conversation Thursday reflected that excitement, the sense of a fresh start — as well as the difficulty that so often accompanies new beginnings. Opening comments from a Regional Medical Center respiratory therapist underlined how hard being healthy can actually be.
“As a nation, you can order a pizza 24/7,” Sherri Rollins, 48, said. “We work in the health care field, we see this every day: Our people are dying from lack of knowledge.”
Rollins specifically mentioned a part of the documentary that showed a nurse near tears as she talked about the increasing number of children who are overweight and obese.
“When that lady said in the film, with her voice cracking, ‘this is our future,’ I wanted to bawl,” Rollins said. “Because it is.”
Much of the discussion focused on children, perhaps fitting in a state where obesity rates in high schools are among the highest in the nation, according to a federal study released last week.
Some people, like Angela Walker, a local image consultant, and Gudren Van Dyke, a natural health educator, spoke specifically about parents. Modern parents don’t understand what healthy food is anymore, Van Dyke said. Walker acknowledged that it’s hard to come home and fix a meal when you’re tired.
“It may be challenging, but it’s not impossible,” the 37-year-old Anniston woman said. “We have to make deliberate sacrifices.”
Joe Jankoski, the director of the Calhoun County Community Foundation, raised questions about how to educate parents about healthy choices. He also mentioned projects that he and other local leaders have undertaken to encourage healthier living for kids, including a community garden in west Anniston and new biking and running groups designed for area youth.
To that end, Patrick Wigley, the owner of a bike shop in Anniston, praised the efforts in the area that already promote a vigorous lifestyle. He cited the new Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail as one of those efforts.
“I think Calhoun County already is doing some things to address it,” the Wig’s Wheels owner said of obesity issues. “Where we are dropping the ball is the advertising of that.”
Meanwhile, others at the screening focused on societal pressures and shortcomings that affect children’s weight and eating habits.
Mike Poe, of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, expressed frustration that now more than ever people seem to accept obesity, even though there are obvious health risks.
A Wellborn woman who said she has struggled with weight issues all of her life agreed it is important to help kids understand that being obese will hurt them in many different ways — now and later.
Annie Gilliam, 56, remembers when she was 12 and weighed 186 pounds. She remembers the hurt then — when classmates called her “lard” and “fat.” She still hurts now — because of health problems like sleep apnea, diabetes and joint pain.
“I wasn’t thinking about that growing up, all I was thinking about was people not accepting me about my weight,” Gilliam said, tearing up. “I think it’s important to make sure that even though we want people to be thin to have respect and try to show them the healthy side of it.”
As the conversation played out, the Obesity Task Force director encouraged the group to meet again to continue the dialogue. She challenged everyone to learn their own Body Mass Index numbers, a measurement of a person’s body fat using height and weight, and to involve more members of the community in the fight against obesity.
“It’s a whole lifestyle,” Gaines said about how to reduce obesity rates. “It’s not a diet.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.