The sharply rising rate of obesity in America over the past two decades has engendered a fierce public debate, pitting those who hold the food industry responsible for making and promoting unhealthy foods against those who believe that obesity results from a failure of personal responsibility and self-control.

Enter Leslie Rudd, who made his fortune in the food and beverage industry but who also struggled with his weight, and with the resulting stigma, for much of his life. It is Rudd’s hope that Yale’s new Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, established with his $7.5 million, five-year gift, will represent a fresh start in the fight against obesity and against the discrimination faced by overweight and obese individuals.

The new center’s director, Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology at Yale and professor of epidemiology at the School of Medicine, is a well-known critic of the food industry, but he and Rudd share a strong belief that curbing the obesity crisis will require seismic shifts in our society’s approach to food and eating.

“The only hope of preventing obesity lies in understanding and changing the fundamental economic, political and social factors that promote consumption of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods along with physical inactivity,” says Brownell, who was elected to the Institute of Medicine in October (see “Banner Year for Yale as Six Faculty Join Institute of Medicine”). “We believe that real change requires nothing less than real change.”

Rudd, CEO and principal owner of Kansas-based wine and liquor distributor Standard Beverage Corp., luxury foods purveyor Dean and DeLuca and Rudd Winery, a high-end wine producer in Napa Valley, Calif., sees no contradiction between a life at the heart of the food industry and his founding in 1998 of the Rudd Foundation, which is committed to ending obesity and discrimination against overweight individuals. “I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive,” he says. “I think that the obesity issue is separate from the enjoyment of food and wine.”

Accordingly, a key component of the Rudd Center’s mission is to serve as a “safe space,” away from the provocative arenas of politics and the media, where leaders of food and agriculture companies can meet with scientists, public health officials and educators for candid exchanges on issues of nutrition and obesity.

The center also plans to monitor and evaluate the food industry’s efforts to provide healthier foods and promote healthier eating. Brownell says the center will support corporate campaigns based on solid science but will criticize those found to be short-term, ineffective or misleading.

Using findings by social scientists on effective techniques of persuasion, Rudd Center researchers also plan to create compelling new public health messages that encourage exercise and good nutrition.

The societal stigma surrounding weight has been a major concern of the Rudd Foundation, and the new center will conduct and sponsor research on how weight bias affects emotional well-being in overweight individuals.

“I was once a lot more overweight than I am now,” Rudd explains, “and it gave me a first-hand insight into what people who are overweight feel and the discrimination they face.”

Rudd believes that the psychological pressure of weight stigma can be so severe as to be disabling, and he sees his achievements in business as a means to help others overcome the physical and psychological burdens of obesity.

“Many overweight people are so held back by this one stigma that they’re not very successful,” Rudd says. “I became relatively successful. I thought that establishing the center was something that needed to be done, and now there are a lot of people joining us.”