Headed to Duke, Brownell shapes obesity studies

The fight against obesity may never be the same thanks to Kelly Brownell.

Since joining the Yale community in 1991 as a professor of psychology after serving on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine for 13 years, Brownell has revolutionized the global fight against obesity. Though obesity was once treated on an individual level, Brownell shifted the focus to “toxic environments” — a phrase he coined to describe the complex combinations of social and economic factors that draw people to unhealthy foods. In 2005, Brownell founded the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale to house the University’s obesity research and direct public policy efforts. In 2006, Time magazine named Brownell one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” for his work to combat childhood obesity.

This fall, Brownell will become the dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, leaving behind a legacy as a teacher, researcher, mentor and activist from his two decades of work at Yale.

“His students and colleagues all benefit from the incredible intellect and incredible science and incredible humanity that Kelly Brownell brings to everything he does,” said Tracy Orleans, senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has donated $11 million to the Rudd Center. “I couldn’t pick a better leader for our movement than Kelly Brownell. If there were a Nobel Prize for this kind of leadership, Kelly would get it.”

LEARNING OBESITY

In the early 1990s, researchers focused on treating obesity by helping people lose weight and keep it off, said Rudd Center Deputy Director Marlene Schwartz GRD ’96 who received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Yale under Brownell. Schwartz said as a clinician, she would often help patients decide to adopt a healthier lifestyle only to see the “toxic environment” — the combination of aggressively marketed unhealthy foods and sedentary culture — undo this resolve .

Schwartz said Brownell was one of the first people in the field of obesity studies to think about the epidemic as a public health problem rather than a medical one.

“Over the years I became convinced that obesity was a problem that needed to be prevented rather than treated,” Brownell said. “And that leads directly down the path of public policy.”

Using $5 million in seed funds from the Rudd Foundation in 2005, Brownell assembled a multidisciplinary team of experts in fields ranging from law to psychology to conduct research in the hope of ultimately shaping public policy on a national level.

One of the most controversial issues the Rudd Center has addressed was the question of soda taxation, Brownell said. After many years of conducting research and drafting policy recommendations supporting such a tax, Brownell said such taxes are now in place in five countries. Within the United States, soft-drink tax legislation has been introduced in approximately 20 cities and states, including New York City.

“The science that comes from the Rudd Center, especially science on food marketing and its reach and impact on kids, is incomparable,” said Orleans. “It provides a compass for understanding how to alter food marketing and create healthier choices for kids and families. We have been really privileged to work with Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at the Rudd Center figuring out how to do that.”

The Rudd Center has also made considerable progress in reforming school nutrition programs. Brownell’s research has set the stage for the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Smart Snacks in Schools” proposal, which aims to reduce high-calorie foods and increase the availability of nutritious options in public schools nationwide. Orleans said the genesis of this new regulation, which was formally proposed on Feb. 1, stems from one of Brownell’s early congressional testimonies in 2002 about the importance of removing unhealthy foods from schools. At these Senate hearings, an industry representative claimed public school vending machines offered sufficient healthy options. Brownell responded by visiting 10 New Haven public schools and found that of the 170 total buttons students could push, only one offered pure juice, and 11 offered water.

“This is so Kelly Brownell,” Orleans said.

MASTER, IN AND OUT OF THE CLASSROOM 

Brownell’s legacy at Yale extends beyond his fight against obesity — he served as master of Silliman College from 1994–2000, chair and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology and a professor of epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Public Health.

Schwartz said he thinks Brownell’s legacy at Yale is inspiring a generation of students to pursue work in food policy. From her own experience as a graduate student under Brownell’s tutelage, Schwartz called him a “terrific mentor.”

His undergraduate course entitled “The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food” has been popular among undergraduates since Brownell began teaching it in 2004.

Margot Gerould ’15, one of the 400 students currently enrolled in the course, said the material has impacted her beyond academic fascination.

“I feel like you can’t learn all the stuff he is teaching and not have it affect you in some way,” she said. “My diet has already changed — it’s causing me to completely rethink the way that I eat and the way that I cook.”

Emile Greer ’15 called it “the coolest class ever.”

Apart from his work at the Rudd Center and in the classroom, Brownell said the highlight of his 22 years at Yale were the six years spent as master of Silliman College. Silliman Dean Hugh Flick said in an email to the News that Brownell was a dedicated master who cared about connecting to the students and pushing them to foster community in the college.

“I had a ball during the six years I was master and made many wonderful friendships with students that have endured today,” Brownell said.

DOWN TO DURHAM

Brownell said he is thrilled by the position of dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke because he will be immersed in a greater range of global issues, including climate change, poverty and international development. While the disciplines may be different, he said he hopes to transfer the Rudd Center model of “strategic science” — research that helps to answer and influence policy questions and design.

“I am one of those people who hopes to leave behind the world better than I entered it,” he said.

Schwartz said an academic of Brownell’s stature is constantly wooed by other institutions, but that she suspects he never seriously considered other offers because he was so focused on his work at Yale. She said Brownell told her that he has “one more job in him” and that he still felt he could take on a new challenge.

While Brownell will continue providing support to the Rudd Center from his office in Durham, Schwartz said Brownell was confident it has reached a critical mass and could operate without him. She added that she hopes there is a new director in line by the time Brownell leaves on July 1.

“I watched him try to make the decision, and I think it was a really tough decision because he loves Yale,” she said. “He’s been here for over 20 years, and he’s got a lot of friends.”

Orleans said she is confident in the continued leadership of the Rudd Center after Brownell leaves.

“Someday, when your kids are going to a school where there are no soft drinks sold and there are no high-calorie pizzas in the lunch line, Kelly Brownell will be in the woodwork.”

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