Mark Bittman, the smart, pithy New York Times columnist and food activist comes down hard on the U.S. Surgeon General today in a piece called “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” It’s true, the nation’s doctor, Regina Benjamin can be frustratingly on-message when speaking to the press and is clearly not a risk-taker with her public health campaigns (more on our experience with this later). But Bittman is relentless here, calling her “virtually invisible” and questioning her courage. (It probably didn’t help that Benjamin declined Bittman’s request for an interview.) Here’s more from his column:
Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible. Whether that is a personality trait, a lack of courage (hard to believe — she’s a Catholic who supports abortion rights), a lack of qualification or a sign of the impotence of her office is something she won’t help us figure out: her representative declined my request for an interview.
But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”
Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it.
We’ve interviewed Benjamin several times and have always come away wishing she’d be a bit more out there and aggressive about her message, whether it’s on the importance of prevention or on exercise. Continue reading →
Please forgive this self-referential self-indulgence, but when we’re cozied up at home watching the snow swirl down, our thoughts tend to turn inward.
I’ve taken a funny bit of flak lately for asking the surgeon general about her weight when she was visiting Boston in November (See the video below). It goes, in essence: This kind of thing isn’t done by serious journalists. Too superficial. No gravitas. Will a distinguished MD-PhD want to speak with a reporter who asks the surgeon general of the United States of America about being fat?
When you were nominated for surgeon general, your critics tried to disqualify you on the basis of your weight, saying you were perpetuating obesity rather than battling it.
My thought is that people should be healthy and be fit at whatever size they are. What sort of exercise do you recommend for people who don’t love it?
I want exercise to be fun; don’t want it to be work. I don’t want it to be so routine that you’re bored with it. We used to jump rope a lot and double Dutch and went to a disco to have fun and enjoy ourselves. We didn’t go to the disco because somebody said, Go dance for 30 minutes.
Looks like Deborah Solomon of the Times magazine had the same feeling I did: When the top health official of a nation fighting an obesity epidemic is herself overweight, you have to ask about it. I have just one regret about that interview. I felt so darned sheepish that I let Dr. Benjamin go without asking her the logical follow-ups: So if you’ve always been active and yet you’re still heavier than the recommended weight, what is your message about that? Do you say: “If you’re overweight, never give up, keep trying to lose weight”? Or do you say, “Some bodies just need to be heavier, and we can try to be fit within those constraints”? And what are the policy implications of that message?”