A decade ago, when Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., first started attracting national attention, his critics called him a “wacko,” a “food fascist” and the “grand poobah of the anti-consumer movement.” His crime? Accusing the food industry of creating a “toxic food environment” resulting in an “obesity epidemic” (See “Fighting the Good Food Fight,” Winter 2004). Three years ago he outlined the problem and proposed solutions in Food Fight, written with Katherine Battle Horgen, Ph.D.
His goal since then has been to “change the world’s diet,” he said. “It took a long time to take the first few steps, but now things are starting to happen quickly.”
One of those advances is Yale’s new Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, which Brownell, professor and chair of psychiatry and professor of epidemiology, directs. Made possible by a gift from Leslie Rudd, a vintner who hopes to affect attitudes toward food and wine in this country, the center’s goal is to improve the world’s nutrition, prevent obesity and reduce weight stigma through science-based public policy. The center opened its new offices on Edwards Street in October.
“We need to do strategic science in the interest of informing policy leaders,” said Brownell, “and we also want to make policy-makers more responsive to science.” As an example, Brownell cited the debate over soda machines in schools. “While educators may know that soft drinks aren’t especially healthy, health isn’t the main reason schools are in business. But if we can show that diet affects standardized test scores, you’d see an immediate application for public policy. That’s strategic science.”
The center’s work will involve both domestic and global initiatives, said Brownell, a reflection that the obesity crisis is worldwide. “The health minister of China recently announced that obesity and diabetes were huge problems there. The same is true in India,” he said. “You can’t understand the modern food environment without a global view. National trade policies, subsidies to the agricultural industry—all these things affect the food supply worldwide.” In addition, much obesity-related policy innovation—taxing junk food, for example—is occurring outside the United States.
“We really do want to make a difference,” said Brownell, who was named to the Institute of Medicine in October.