Why Dr. Pamela Peeke Will Argue for Government Intervention in the Obesity Epidemic at the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate on…

Live debates about fascinating and contentious topics.
Feb. 2 2012 6:45 AM

Twinkies Are Science Fair Projects

And other reasons the government should play a role in America’s war on obesity.

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SLATE: But there’s so much information already out there. Do you think it’s made a difference?

PEEKE: People are not making the connections. You’re motivated to change when you see a greater reward in doing something else. That’s why the way in which the information is communicated is absolutely critical. If you give the best information in a dry format, I don’t care how right it is—it’s very hard to digest and to relate to your own life. Talking about health is lethally boring. If you and I start talking shoes, we could talk for hours. It stirs up this pleasure in our minds. But now, when I flip the conversation over to obesity, there’s dead silence, right? As a communicator, my job is to turn the boring factoids into what I love to call simple, sexy, sticky sound bites. You make it so interesting and fun that someone says, “Oh my god. I never knew that.”

Here’s another thing the government can do better: infrastructure. As a citizen, I can’t create a park or make sidewalks happen when they’re not there. We should have tons and tons of voluntary campaigns, such as the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award and Let’s Move, which get people inspired without ramming it up their nose. We’ve got dead land just sitting around in Detroit, in all kinds of places. Why couldn’t the government take some of that land and convert it into organic gardens? Science shows that when children grow their own, they eat their own, meaning that if they grew that zucchini, they’re going to eat it with pride.

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SLATE: Why frame any of this as a war on obesity? Why not just encourage people to move more and eat better?

PEEKE: You’re asking, I think, whether “healthy” and “overweight” are mutually exclusive. It’s really about where you start. Twenty-five years ago, someone with 20 pounds to drop was in dire straits. Today, physicians get people with over 100 pounds to drop. Let’s say I’m working with an average-heighted woman of about 220 pounds. There’s not a single person who thinks a 5-foot4 woman should be north of 200; that’s just ridiculous. So we really concentrate on getting out of that red zone. Now I’ve got her down to 160 pounds. She’s physically fit, just ran a 10K, but you know, her little body, it’s rough. She’s not going any lower, and the BMI says she’s overweight. But she’s actually in better shape than someone who is 130 pounds and 5-foot-4 and never exercises and eats trash.

Of course, if you’re currently average-weighted—the three of you left in the United States—I’m all about obesity prevention. I’ll say, “Come on now. Grow up. Eat your whole foods, be physically active, learn better stress management, meditate, whatever.”

SLATE: Do you agree with your debate opponent Paul Campos that the obese are unfairly stigmatized?

PEEKE: Oh, yes. When I say things like “Grow up,” I’m being facetious. Obese people are living in hell. They can’t find decent clothes. Most people stereotype them on multiple levels. They’ve got self-denigration, poor body image, all the rest of it. What you want to do is show them tremendous compassion. At the same time, educate them. Give them credible tools to be able to help themselves. We do this with smoking all the time, providing drugs, patches, cessation programs, and apps. But unlike with smoking, [obese people] need a team behind them that understands the risks and in a very compassionate way offers appropriate, palatable, doable programs.

SLATE: An obese white woman makes $1,855 less, on average, than a white woman in the normal BMI range. How can the government combat fat discrimination?  

PEEKE: They can combat it to the degree that if someone in your office were interviewing people and overtly refused to hire someone on account of her weight, that’s illegal. Of course that happens very rarely. Far more often, you have five candidates, two of whom are obese, and neither of the obese people get the job. The bias is streaming quietly in the background.

One place to start is popular culture. Look at that show on television now, Mike and Molly. Can you imagine it airing 30 years ago? Never! And suddenly there they are, and they’re funny and cute and also struggling with their weight, and they both know it. They say it out loud. And they’re bringing obesity out of the closet. You can’t regulate the way people are thinking, but you can change the culture, change the language.

SLATE: What do you think about how pop culture currently defines the ideal body?

PEEKE: Oh, for women? Far too thin.

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