Dr. Pamela Peeke is equal parts sunny and tough. The bestselling author of Fight Fat After Forty, Body for Life for Women, and Fit To Live, Peeke is a physician and chief lifestyle expert at WebMD. She says she believes “people are more powerful than they think,” and she refuses to ignore the social and environmental factors that entangle our personal choices. That’s why Peeke will argue that “Obesity is the government’s business” at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate in New York on Feb. 7.
A self-professed “communicator,” Dr. Peeke (her patients know her as Dr. P) is bursting with ideas about how the government can educate consumers and inspire kids, including more in-school fitness programs and a Facebook page for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last week, we talked about some of her ideas, as well as the magic of apple pie and the travesty of the 20-story hamburger.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
SLATE: Let’s start with the burning question. Is obesity a choice?
PEEKE: Obesity is not a choice. It’s a complex situation, an interplay of countless factors. It can involve a potential in people’s lives—they have a potential for being obese, perhaps through genetic lines, but by controlling other variables, they can dampen that significantly. This is a matter of awareness, enlightenment, and being equipped with the appropriate tips, tools, and techniques. You’re not just some passive person whom obesity whacks in the head. It may not be your fault that you have whatever genetic or environmental cards you have, but it is within your domain to make some choices that will help control your weight.
SLATE: So obesity is not a choice, but it’s possible to make choices that prevent you from being obese?
PEEKE: Yes, and it’s possible to lose weight despite being genetically predisposed to obesity. I have legions of patients who have done this. It takes mental and physical fitness; I link the two all the time. I have to. I’m tired of people treating the body like a dog you take for a run.
SLATE: What is mental fitness? Is it willpower?
PEEKE: It’s more than that. Current research shows that a strengthened prefrontal cortex from physical activity allows you to rein in impulsivity. You don’t need more than 30-45 minutes of walking a day to get the effects. Also, people who do regular physical activity can dampen the effect of the FTO gene, which is a very powerful gene associated with obesity, by 40 percent.
Let’s say you’re born with the worst genes on the planet and you feel doomed, like you just want to eat a lot. If you exercise on a regular basis (as well as meditate, by the way), you’ll make the right choices more often. You’ll be more mindful and less impulsive.
SLATE: Where does the government come in?
PEEKE: I am not advocating for a nanny state. I don’t want someone taking my mother’s chocolate-chip cookie out of my hand. Oh my God, it’s a food felony! I mean, that’s ridiculous. I’ll just score it somewhere else. But there’s a lot the government can do. Number one is promoting research. Last time I looked, the National Institutes of Health had a congressional budget. We need to use that budget to understand the underpinnings, the hot new research that’s coming out. Another thing we need is education at 900 different levels—from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Centers for Disease Control to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We need it to be free, easily accessed, easily digested. I’d love to see more education platforms on television, radio, and the internet. People should constantly be hearing appropriate information about food, physical activity, environment, stress, and everything else that can contribute to the obesity epidemic.