Dr. Kelly Brownell is not Gandhi.
Like Gandhi, though, he has discovered an important lesson about the progression of a social movement — and about the public’s response to widespread change. “First [your opponents] ignore you,” Dr. Brownell says, applying Gandhi’s words to his own experience. “Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you.” He straightens his shoulders. “And then,” he says, “then you win.”
Of course, Gandhi was referring to the struggle for a nation’s rights. Dr. Brownell is not claiming to enact such sweeping political change. However, as the director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and Chair of the Psychology Department, he is advocating broad, government-led changes in the ways Americans eat and exercise, which he believes will spur vast improvements in American health and happiness. Even despite its lofty goals, such a movement could be trivialized. In the past, it has been.
Yet with 65 percent of the American population overweight, that is beginning to change. The government is debating various ways to thin America down, the media is referring to the obesity phenomenon in terms like “epidemic” and “crisis”, and Americans everywhere are individually struggling to manage their weight. Dr. Brownell’s latest book, “Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It,” (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2003; written with Katherine Battle, Ph. D. Horgen) is further catalyzing this shift in national perception.
Dr. Brownell has always been a media favorite. His expertise in the fields of nutrition and weight problems, coupled with his views on obesity, which strike many as extravagant and radical, have ensured his spot in the news for more than a decade. With August’s publication of “Food Fight” — his thirteenth and possibly most ground-breaking book — he and his cause are only gaining fame. Currently, he gives three or four interviews daily, and since August he has been featured in everything from “Good Morning, America” to The New York Times.
Dr. Brownell’s work at Yale, he says, was one of the major inspirations for the book. The Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders is one of the few centers in the world designed to treat both obesity and eating disorders. While working there, Dr. Brownell quickly realized that treating either issue was “quite hard once the problems exist.” Here, then, lie the questions his book tries to answer: Where do such unhealthy views of food come from? And how can we prevent them from developing?
As it turns out, he says, the answers were right in front of him: in the grocery stores, restaurants, television commercials and food ads of daily life. He dubbed this combination of stimuli America’s “toxic environment,” concluding that widespread obesity stems from American culture. The finding surprised even him. “My own reaction in looking into this and putting all the pieces together,” he said, “was, ‘Oh, my God. This is an unbelievable picture, and it’s the perfect recipe for making a sick nation.'” He contends that Americans are being hooked on unhealthy foods from childhood by a food industry that unfairly targets youngsters with catchy commercials, cartoon characters and celebrity testimonials.
To prevent further damage, he says, Americans need to mobilize under a “national strategic plan.” Healthier foods should be subsidized, nutritional and physical education programs should be implemented, and other specific measures should be taken. One measure he is particularly known for is the so-called “Twinkie tax” that would raise the price of junk foods.
Not everyone agrees with the proposed tactics. Conservatives, especially, recoil at such plans of action, worried about the future implications of government interference in Americans’ eating habits. Rush Limbaugh has nicknamed Brownell and his colleagues the “high-fat Gestapo”; the Center for Consumer Freedom calls Brownell’s book a “Big Brother Manifesto” and points to the author’s own paunch as a sign of his lack of credibility.
But Brownell is used to causing controversy. A Wall Street Journal editorial, responding in 1997 to Brownell’s various ideas, “basically said, what are you going to do, lead away Ben and Jerry in handcuffs?” he said, chuckling.
Not all aspects of Dr. Brownell’s career have always been so controversial. For six years, he served as the master of Yale’s own Silliman College, where the students hailed his sense of humor and school spirit. They liked him so much, in fact, that when he retired from the position, they threw him a surprise party — and dedicated the Silliman buttery in his honor. It is still called “Master B’s.”
Dr. Brownell has just as many fond memories of the students as they do of him. “The six years I spent as master of Silliman College were among the most enjoyable I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I got to see students outside of the classroom and get to know them as total people — and I couldn’t come away more impressed by their goodwill, energy, kindness and spunk.” Despite his love for the job, however, he ultimately stepped down, citing the difficulties of juggling his duties of master with teaching and heading the psychology department. In addition, he said, he “felt this yearning to get back to my scholarly activities, especially because there was a book that I wanted to write.” That book, of course, was “Food Fight.”
One of the fondest memories Dr. Brownell has of his time at Silliman was a Jell-O wrestling match against Pierson’s master, Harvey Goldblatt. About two-thirds of the way through the fight, he said, they stopped and stood up, yelling “Food fight!” Pandemonium ensued as students and professors alike jumped into the pit, flinging Jell-O at one another. “Dean Brodhead even got Jell-O on his sport coat,” Dr. Brownell chuckled.
Now, four years later, Dr. Brownell is famous for another type of “Food Fight.”ÊBut whether he’s wrestling in Jell-O for the sake of the Sillimander or taking on Rush Limbaugh and the O’Reilly Factor for (as he sees it) the sake of America, one thing is certain: he may not be Gandhi, but Dr. Brownell is somebody who truly strives to make a difference.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”364″ ]