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Fighting the good food fight

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Winter


Yale’s Kelly Brownell has turned concern about obesity and the American diet into a national debate about our “toxic food environment.” Not everyone is pleased.

With the pealing bells of St. Mary’s Church as counterpoint, a celebratory air prevailed in the seminar room of Kirkland Hall on a crisp autumn day last year. The psychology department’s weekly noontime talks are usually given by scholars from out of town, but on this occasion the faculty was hosting one of its own, department chair Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D.

Brownell, who also serves as director of Yale’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, is a national figure in the raging public debate over the worldwide rise in obesity. He and a former graduate student, Katherine Battle Horgen, Ph.D., had just published Food Fight, a new book on the topic, and he was fielding four or five interview requests per day from radio, television and print journalists eager to stoke an already heated debate with the controversial policy proposals outlined in the book.

When introducing Brownell to the hometown crowd, William R. Corbin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Yale, proudly called attention to his colleague’s highly visible role as the media’s go-to guy for commentary on America’s expanding waistlines, half-seriously likening him to a “rock star.”

The characterization pleased Brownell, a man who follows popular music with as much fervor as he devotes to food policy. But as he took the podium, he playfully punctured the euphoric mood by drawing on every successful author’s sure-fire reality-check device: the mailbag. Holding an unsigned postcard that had arrived that morning from Baltimore, he read, “Mind your own damn business. You’re motivated, like nearly all liberals, by book sales, caring less about a person’s diet. What a person eats is none of your business, or teachers’ or the government’s. A pox on your house!”

The postcard’s over-the-top language drew laughter from the sympathetic audience in Kirkland, but it also served as a reminder that emotions run high on Brownell’s chosen battleground. Eating is among the most intimate of human activities, and it is invested with deep feeling. Food is a sensitive, serious business.

Oddly enough, the high emotional pitch of the obesity wars may derive from the fact that there is so much agreement on the basic facts. Some of the most alarming statistics—the 250 percent increase in obesity among American children over the last two decades, for example—are so stark that no one (except for a few outliers like Paul Campos, J.D., a law professor at the University of Colorado, who denies the basic premise that there is an obesity epidemic) disputes them.

Since there are only a few plausible interpretations of these facts, and since there are billions of dollars at stake in the debate’s outcome, opponents have tended to take battle stations based in broader ideologies and to man them unwaveringly.

Brownell is perhaps the best-known proponent of the view that the recent upsurge in obesity is the result of a “toxic food environment” created and promoted by the food industry. According to Brownell, we are biologically hard-wired to crave fats, sugars and salts, and to eat far greater amounts of them than we need. During the past 20 years, he says, this propensity has combined with the emergence of new “eating opportunities” to cause an epidemic of obesity.

“Twenty years ago, who would have even thought of having lunch at a gas station?” Brownell asked the crowd at Kirkland as he prodded his laptop to pump out slide after PowerPoint slide illustrating the gargantuan portions, four-digit calorie counts and slick, kid-centered marketing that are the coin of the fast-food realm.

Since he was on friendly turf, Brownell mostly let the images and statistics speak for themselves. A photo of a new Dunkin’ Donuts outlet in a corner of his local supermarket was followed by a close-up of a shopping cart that had been painstakingly retrofitted with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup holder, and one could almost see his listeners register the intended message: now we eat while we shop for food. Brownell’s calm, patient marshaling of the evidence was punctuated by chuckles and gasps of recognition, as if these features of contemporary American life were so ever-present that they had become the visual equivalent of background noise, and were being seen by his audience with fresh eyes.

In Food Fight, Brownell and Horgen call for taxes on certain foods, for government oversight of food advertising (especially that directed toward children) and for better nutrition education and consumer information to counteract what they see as an incessant, virtually irresistible drone of marketing buzz bankrolled by the food industry. When his arguments are laid out in full as they were during his talk at Yale, Brownell’s conclusions are themselves almost irresistible, but most Americans have only heard him speak in Nightline-sized sound bites.

In that form, his views are easy to caricature. Brownell’s critics paint him as a “Big Brother” figure hellbent on government intrusion into private life, a puritanical killjoy on a crusade to legislate pleasure out of existence, a soft-headed liberal out to shield gluttons from their own irresponsibility at society’s expense.

The feverish emotion of the obesity debate sometimes leads to personal attacks as well, and Brownell has felt their sting. On a website hosted by a group calling itself the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), for example, one finds a Yale publicity photo juxtaposed with a recent shot of an obviously overweight Brownell. A caption reads, “Would you take advice on good diets and nutrition from this man?” Noting that the “trimmer” Brownell is featured on Food Fight’s dust jacket, the site’s anonymous authors accuse him and his publishers of a “truth-in-advertising scam.”

But as I sat with Brownell in the quiet sanctuary of his office after the lecture, it was hard to imagine that he could inspire such invective. It was the heavier version of Brownell who had addressed his department colleagues that day, and he freely admitted to me that his weight “goes up and down.” Without apparent irony, he attributed his condition to frequent snacking, stress and a lack of exercise during the writing of Food Fight. His weight gain was “not a permanent state,” he said, dismissing the CCF website as an ad hominem distraction from the serious issues at hand.

Like most academics, Brownell has set up his office to reflect his professional preoccupations, but the décor has an unmistakable touch of whimsy. A framed Warholesque print of the 7-Eleven “X-treme Gulp” soft-drink container adorns one wall, while bizarre artifacts of junk food culture, including a baby-bottle-sized Mountain Dew container fitted with a nipple, are displayed on a side table, the way an anthropologist might showcase a tribal mask.

In the seminar room, Brownell had steered clear of polemics in favor of a deliberate, thorough line of reasoning, and he was much the same in private. Still boyish and sandy-haired at 52, Brownell calmly made his case in soft, measured speech inflected with the vowels of his Indiana childhood. He was considerably more animated when the talk turned to his avocation, bluegrass music, and to his beloved collection of acoustic guitars. (Fittingly, one favorite is an antique Gibson model called the “Jumbo.”) The overall impression Brownell left was of that rarest specimen in American public discourse: the open-minded true believer.

“Kelly is reasonable and gentlemanly,” says Gene Grabowski, who had occasion to spar with Brownell frequently when he served as chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the world’s largest food-industry organization. “One gets the feeling when dealing with him that he does want to learn, and he wants you to learn as well.” In a recent editorial in The Washington Times, Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote; “While I once considered Mr. Brownell a radical, the fatter we grow the less radical he seems.”

The vociferous condemnations of Brownell may be more a reaction to his perceived influence than to his stated views, which are far more nuanced and moderate than those held by many in the anti-obesity camp. He does support government regulation of food advertising to children, the disclosure of calorie counts on fast-food menus and the removal of soft-drink machines from public schools. However, he opposes filing lawsuits against the food industry on behalf of obese plaintiffs, a strategy that is beginning to take hold nationwide. Although he has been ridiculed as the mastermind behind proposals for a punitive “Twinkie tax” on snack food, Brownell is against levying such taxes at levels that would discourage consumption. Instead he supports a small tax—say, a penny a can on soft drinks—that would be earmarked to fund government-sponsored nutrition education and advertising.

According to Brownell, the CCF and similar organizations are fronts for the food manufacturing and restaurant industries in the guise of grass-roots consumer movements, akin to the “research councils” created by the tobacco companies when the tide of public opinion began to turn against them. (On their website the CCF states that their funding comes from “restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals.”)

Brownell first went public with his views in a 1994 op-ed piece in The New York Times, years before obesity was much on the public’s mind. That article prompted blistering attacks, but Brownell said that he has seen a sea change in public opinion since then, one that has picked up steam exponentially during the last five years. Though he acquired a thick skin from almost a decade of hostile interviews, Brownell said that he’s now growing used to a more tolerant and supportive reception, even in the bare-knuckle arena of talk radio.

Having been in the food policy game for so many years, Brownell surveys today’s battles with a long view. He approvingly cited a recent decision by the city of Los Angeles to remove soft-drink machines from all the city’s public schools, a decision that he said was unimaginable in 1994. “The anti-tobacco movement took 40 years to mature. This movement has made similar progress in 40 months.”

Brownell has lately been finishing his talks with an optimistic aphorism from Gandhi, which he delivered at Yale from his preferred vantage point at the calm center of the maelstrom: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” YM

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