In two weeks, a new documentary called The Weight of the Nation will air on HBO to attempt to add to the public dialogue about obesity. From the trailer, it looks to be full of the usual rhetoric—that today’s kids might live shorter lives than their parents, for one. We’ll have to see. But we’re not surprised to see two leading “food police”—Yale’s Kelly Brownell and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Thomas Frieden—spouting off in the run-up the film’s release.
In USA Today this morning, Brownell and Frieden try to draw parallels between the obesity fight and tobacco. “Fifty years ago, tobacco was ubiquitous. And I think in 50 years we’ll see the ubiquity of unhealthy foods today in a similar light,” says Frieden. “So if the tobacco industry can be taken on successfully by the public health world, then I don’t see any reason why the food industry can’t be the same,” Brownell offers.
The “food equals tobacco” has been a nice motivating speech for these guys to give to themselves, but it fails basic common sense. Nobody needs tobacco to live; in contrast, every person needs food to live. And while there’s a clear scientific correlation between smoking and cancer, the same isn’t true for certain foods and obesity.
Obesity is due to a calorie imbalance—people consuming more energy than they burn off. Any food with calories can contribute to obesity, whether it’s bread and pizza or soda and OJ. In fact, fruit juice often has the same number of calories as supposedly “obesogenic” soft drinks. That’s why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics writes that “total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of a healthful eating style. All foods can fit within this pattern, if consumed in moderation.”
The latest bizarre turn is that food is “addictive” like hard drugs or nicotine—recently touted on 60 Minutes. Yes, hamburgers may send signals to the brain that they’re yummy and pleasurable to eat and hit the same brain centers. But people don’t get the shakes when they don’t get enough smoothies.
The motivation behind all of this is clear: To remove personal responsibility and invite a wave of lawsuits designed at enriching trial lawyers and taking away consumer choice. Obesity can be a serious issue, but let’s not cloud the debate with hazy and unscientific claims. Maybe then we’ll see some real solutions.