The national hysteria over obesity has reached a crescendo this week, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts the conference, “Weight of the Nation” in Washington, DC. If you couldn’t make it, no worries, more fear-mongering is on the way in a four-part mini-series on HBO to air next week. The show of the same name is produced in coordination with several federal government agencies. The trailer alone almost brought me to tears, seeing all the awful stereotypes of fat people.


As I wrote in my book, focusing on obesity is problematic for many reasons. One, it ensures the focus stays on the individual, instead of the food industry. What do you think when you see a fat person? That it’s their fault, they just need to eat better and exercise more. Granted, my public health colleagues are trying to change this conversation to one of the “environment” (far too apolitical a word) but as long as we keep talking about obesity, the framing is all about individual behavior change.

Next, scientific evidence shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, etc, and the last thing they need is more hate brought to you by the federal government and cable television. All the images I have seen coming from news accounts of the conference are negative. Even while the headlines may attempt to reframe from blame and shame, the images do not. For example, this Reuters story headline reads “Obesity fight must shift from personal blame-U.S. panel” but the image is of a fat person. Journalists take note: you are adding to the problem of bias and shame by using these images. (Recently, I wrote an article for the UK Guardian about PepsiCo and they wanted to run it with an image of a fat person. I insisted they change it and thankfully they did.)

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs! Indeed, the big announcement coming out of the CDC event yesterday was how the first lady’s Let’s Move program has its newest corporate partner in the frozen vegetable company, Birds Eye, which is launching a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat their veggies. Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye. Never mind all that junk food marketing to kids, which Let’s Move ignores. (If you missed it, this recent excellent Reuters investigation explains the food industry politics at play.)

The only thing bringing me any sanity this week is reading Julie Guthman’s excellent critique of the obesity wars, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. While Guthman’s style is too academic, she does a good job explaining why obesity is over-hyped and offers some interesting alternative theories to the tired calories in, calories out model. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that offers new and challenging insights on this issue. Additional resources I can recommend include:

A critical thinkers guide to the HBO series

Deconstructing HBO’s Weight of the Nation

Linda Bacon’s book, Health at Every Size

Health at Every Size Community.


Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, is a policy consultant with the Center for Food Safety. “Why I Am Not Attending or Watching ‘Weight of the Nation’ ” was originally posted May 8, 2012 on her Appetite for Profit website.

  • Martin Rojas

    Schools are not as strict as they used to be in physical education

  • Ian

    Ms. Simon,
    It is a good point and I enjoyed reading your view. I am more along the lines that self preservation is the key motivator and ultimately will drive markets in the direction of the consumer. You cant continue to kill off your customers, example Birds Eye.
    Ian Welch

  • Emily

    So it is OK to be obese? This article makes obesity sound like a splendid condition. More twisted logic from the lunatic fringe. This author seems always to be foaming at the mouth. She is a complete waste of time.

  • Brian

    How about personal responsibility? When are people going to realize if your shoveling 3k plus calories a day down their gullet and they consist of mainly fat and sugar that you won’t look like a superstar. When are people going to realize that proper diet and 4 or 5 days of moderate intensity exercise is the way our species was brought up. We should be obsessed with this problem because it causes worse health problems than smoking tobacco. Get a grip guy its not fear mongering its being direct about the problem. I have lost 30lb this year and its because I was honest with myself about where I am and the direction I was going with my diet/exercise. That is what drives me.

  • Lets Move (just a little, OK?)

    One might choose not to attend or watch “Weight of the Nation” if it is too emotionally painful, sort of like looking in the mirror and seeing a cow staring back. So sad some people let themselves go, deny all reality of their situation, insist willpower & physical activity are unimportant to weight control and health. What are the odds these same torpid fleshy people could be ever starved into shape by brutally oppressive anti-food laws in an autocratic food police state? Heck, they would be the jolly rotund peddlers of contraband sweets in the black market.

  • Low Carber

    Just cut all the junk food and grains from your diet and suddenly a miracle will happen. You’ll lose lot’s of weight and the most important, you won’t regain it.
    The low-fat hysteria is the main cause of this obesity “epidemic”. Don’t be afraid of butter, ghee, eggs, and coconut oil. They will only make you healthier.
    Add some “cold thermogenesis” to your life and this will even make you lose weight even faster.
    Check out a great website by Dr Jack Kruse if you care.
    The more people get sick overeating on carbs, the more money Big Pharma & hospitals make. They just want to keep on making people dumb, ignorant & obese. You are just a cash cow & a guinea pig in their experiments.

  • I made the choice to change myself and my eating habits. This was difficult but worth it. I also had to change my thoughts about food, and realize how I ate. I raised my awareness about eating and turned eating into a meditation. I ate in silence and acknowledge every bite I took was to nourish my body, mind, and soul. Do I eat junk food, yes, but very rarely. Do I eat small portions, yes, because serving sizes are huge in this country. But it is my choice and I’d rather pay for it in food and not my health. I also follow a vegetarian diet which helps me.

  • gene (genius at large)

    Let me get this straight. Here we have Michele Simon, of all people, broadly scolding the CDC accusing THEM of hysteria, fear-mongering, hate and universally negative images? Seriously? Now, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black I don’t know what is. CDC has its limitations but there is absolutely no chance any sane person will be fooled by Simon’s inelegant effort to maliciously project her own copyrighted attributes upon them. Heh, Simon sez “cover your eyes, look over there, let me tell you what you are seeing!” Sure, we’ll fall for that inept smear. How incredibly insulting!

  • Lisa

    Thank you, Ms. Simon, for such a thoughtful essay. I’m a very fat person who exercises regularly and vigorously and eats a very balanced diet of (mostly) organic and “whole” foods. I work full time, pay my taxes, have a healthy happy family and contribute to my community. I can tell based on the comments you already have posted here that some people refuse to believe that I exist 🙂
    With the exception of the number on the scale all my other health numbers are perfect, and I have no chronic health problems. I try to stay focused on taking good care of myself and focusing on decreasing stress and on what my body can do rather than what it looks like. I stopped dieting years ago when I realized that it was just making me fatter and more unhappy with my body. I now use the Health At Every Size(SM) approach to my health and it’s made a huge difference. My primary care doc has recommended this approach to others based on my experiences and the data.
    And yes, it’s harder to make money off of someone who likes themselves the way they are, and won’t shell out all sorts of money for diets or pills, etc…. And as Marilyn Wann has said, you can’t hate people for their own good!

  • life in orange

    The facts are true. Obesity is a national problem. And it’s only going to get worse if people simply don’t care about their image that they’re projecting, not only to society…..but more importantly, to themselves. We “very well know” as a first world society what the effects of tobacco and alcohol does to people…..they kill. So why can’t we agree what we are witnessing regarding the true effects of eatting a poor diet ?

  • Thank you Michele Simon for this valuable and true piece. Just reading the hate-soaked comments of Emily, Brian and others is enough to prove the point. Most of this anti-obesity hysteria is not based on science; it’s an emotional reaction. Studies consistently show that overweight people live longer than “normal” weight people.
    In many studies, it appears that fat people have worse health, but that’s because fat people tend to be poorer and have harder lives. If you control for socioeconomic status (SES), the association between weight and poor health disappears. But the constant shaming and discrimination fat people deal with certainly doesn’t help their health or anyone else’s.

  • Hurricane Fatpanic is coming, and it is not a good thing. Thank you, Michelle, for your courageous stance in the face of so many corporate and political forces with interests in shifting peoples’ attention away from our pressing social, environmental, and political troubles to scapegoating fat people.
    I am not sure people realize that the photos of people accompanying the “2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese!” actually represent far less than even 1% of the population. Our rates of “obesity” are not skyrocketing, exploding, or moving at all, for most demographic groups. It’s great to talk about how to make the environment more healthy for people of all sizes, but let’s remember it’s just as problematic for the thin kids to miss out on recess and PE as the fat kids. There is no need to frame this as a weight issue and increase the stigma. Have the courage to make the health argument on its own merits and stop targeting fat folks.

  • Folks, Michele Simon is not promoting obesity.
    I don’t want to speak for her, but my impression of what she’s saying is that we need to focus on improving environment, and that includes reigning in the food corporations.
    In other words, rather than point the camera at obese people and shame them, point the camera at a society that doesn’t provide sidewalks, doesn’t provide bike lanes, provides few choices for healthy, inexpensive food–in other words, point the camera at the cause of unhealthy lifestyles regardless of people’s weight.
    We allow food producers to market sugary cereals as “healthy” for children, at the same time we tell people it’s _all_ their fault for allowing children to eat them.
    We state that the only healthy food choices are local markets, filled with fresh produce, when the average person has no access to such a market, and can’t afford it, if they did. Why are there no healthier choices? Because any federal subsidies go to farmers who grow crops that are used in HFC and corn chips.
    We blather on about healthy school lunches (as if this will solve everything) at the same time we allow agribusiness to influence the definition of what is healthy. Evidently, healthy is french fries and pizza sauce.
    It’s so easy to blame people…as corporations rake in the money, and government agencies look the other way as they do so.
    Again, this is just my reading of what she’s saying, but it’s a thoughtful, and thought provoking piece.

  • Old Mac

    Yeah, Simon is slamming food producers. We get it.
    Of course, since she now insists obesity is not a problem because people are healthy at any size, there is no longer any justification for believing food producers are damaging the public health. So, no further need for repulsive anti-industry hacks like Simon to continue insulting us with twisted scare talking points. We never took her angry alarmism seriously, anyway.

  • Jon

    Thank you Michele — and thank you Shelley — for shedding some clear light on this.
    The most appropriate societal analogy here is The Tobacco Industry — who’s heavy advertising and addictive products targeted citizens of all ages — including little kids who watched glorified images of smokers on TV.
    How many smokers have found themselves too helpless to quit? The tobacco industry spent billions denying that there products are inherently addictive. Liars. And the food industry is doing the same…..
    Bottom line: the health problems didn’t begin to abate until civil society finally stepped in with appropriate education and regulation.

  • The Beet-Eating Heeb is surprised that few, if any, commenters are acknowledging that there is some truth to both arguments.
    Yes, Michelle is correct that neither the government nor the food industry is doing us many favors.
    But, to absolve individuals of any responsibility, as Michelle seems to do, is counterproductive and even somewhat ludicrous.

  • Given Ms Simon’s reputation, I’m going to pick up a Happy Meal and watch it.