May 16 2012
Wrong Message on Obesity
I just participated in an online chat with Dr. Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology at Yale University and Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The chat, hosted by HBO--who produced the obesity documentary Weight of the Nation (in which Brownell was prominently featured)--was a chance for the average joe citizens to ask the obesity expert questions about obesity in general and specifically about the HBO documentary. If you've seen part 4 of the documentary, you know that they spend a fair amount of time on soda--suggesting it is the cause of obesity. Disturbed by this, I decided to join the chat and ask why the show spent so much time promoting this false narrative:
My question was:
"Mr. Brownell, you specifically stated in part 4 of the documentary that because the price of soft drinks has only increased 20 percent in the past several decades, people are more interested in purchasing soft drinks than fruits and vegetables—the price of which has increased over 100 percent within the same time period. How then do you explain the fact that soda sales are down 12 percent and have been in decline for a decade? Why do you continue to blame obesity on soda?"
Mr. Brownell offered this response:
"The soda companies say that says of their products is down, but they are referring to carbonated flagship beverages, which are down. But the are promoting very heavily the new categories of sugared beverages such as sport drinks, energy drinks, vitamin waters, THE COUNTRY CONSUMES WAY TOO MUCH OF SUGARED BEVERAGES, WHICH IS WHY SO MANY PUBLIC HEALTH PROGRAMS ARE WORKING ON THIS ISSUE."
Unfortunately but not entirely surprisingly, Mr. Brownell chose to skip my follow-up questions. Judging by the use of his capslock key, he wasn't very happy with me. But, if he had decided to answer my follow-ups, this is what I would have asked him:
Question #2: Thank you for your response to my earlier question, Mr. Brownell. I have a follow-up. According to government data (NHANES), sugary beverage consumption (all the beverages you mentioned in your response to my earlier question) only account for 7 percent of a person’s overall calorie consumption. Why then is this documentary pushing the narrative that sodas are the number one contributor to obesity (such as in the scene where a man points out a display of three liter bottles of soda inside a small convenience shop and says “that’s the epidemic right there.”).
Question #3: The documentary is critical of the restaurant industry for serving large portions and high-calorie foods. The documentary also says children consumer more calories at restaurants at home. Yet, the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength recently conducted a large study of poor families—the very demographic at highest risk for obesity—and found that these families only eat out at restaurants once a week and only eat ready-to-eat convenience meals, like frozen pizzas or boxed pasta dishes, once a week. The Share Our Strength poll further found that the majority of families polled tried to cook simple meals at home five nights a week. Why then does the documentary spend so much time criticizing the restaurant and food industries?
We'll never know how Mr. Brownell would have responded to my follow-up questions but I suspect he would have made good use of that capslock key. I guess he just found my questions too easy. He chose to tackle instead the really tough ones like "what are your views on organic vegetables?" and "would you recommend employment in the public, private, nonprofit sectors?"
I wish Mr. Brownell--one of this nation's leading experts on obesity--would honestly answer the questions about the causes of this so-called "national crisis" and stop simply blaming big business for an extremely complicated health matter. It does no one, particularly obese people, any good if we continue to avoid the real causes of obesity and the real solutions that can help people live healthier lives.