Jonathan Neman, CEO of the salad chain Sweetgreen, argued in a social-media post that since “COVID is here to stay,” and “no vaccine nor mask will save us,” the best social response is to ban or tax “processed food and refined sugar.”
Many people have crazy beliefs about COVID. Neman’s are interestingly crazy.
Like a tiny clump of berries in a pile of leaves, there is one small thing of value inside Neman’s salad of nonsense.* Obesity is a factor in mortality rates, and it follows that reducing obesity levels would reduce the danger of the pandemic.
However, Neman’s argument that reducing obesity is a better or easier intervention than taking vaccines is nuts. First of all, the effect of obesity as a mortality risk is modest compared to being unvaccinated. The CDC has found that even the most obese category faces a risk of hospitalization around one and a half to two times higher. Being vaccinated, on the other hand, reduces the risk of hospitalization by around 80 percent.
Neman’s idea that vaccines won’t save us but being skinny will has it backward. Getting a jab (which Neman, to his credit, also supports) provides very high levels of protection. Being thin helps much less.
What is perhaps the most fantastical aspect of his argument is his belief that stamping out obesity will somehow be easier than mass vaccination. Permanently losing weight is extraordinarily difficult. Not only is it excruciating on a personal level, but policies designed to combat obesity on a social level produce furious reaction. Even New York City’s extremely modest step to prohibit sugary drinks in enormous containers — a modest nudge that didn’t even prevent people from purchasing multiple containers — produced an outcry and was struck down. If you think getting Americans to take a free shot twice is difficult, try prying the French fries out of their hands.
As an anti-COVID intervention, anti-obesity measures have absolutely no advantages over vaccination, unless you count the side benefit of driving a lot of business Neman’s way.
But it is probably too cynical and reductive to understand his rant as a self-interested ploy. (Indeed, the mere act of writing it was an act of self-sabotage for his brand, and quickly pulled down from LinkedIn.) Instead, Neman is expressing a common prejudice among elites.
As Paul Campos wrote in The Obesity Myth, the link between body size and health outcomes is far weaker than people presume, because many affluent people confuse their aesthetic preference for thinness with medical need. Excess weight only carries greater health risks at high levels, and interventions to reduce obesity overwhelmingly fail.
Denying both realities is a way to shift responsibility for poor health outcomes onto the individual. In 2009, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey opposed Obamacare, arguing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health. … Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.”
(Four years later, Mackey likened Obamacare to fascism.)
The human yearning to believe we can control our own fate is responsible for many stupid risks. It took decades to make seatbelts standard, because many drivers considered their own driving skills so unimpeachable that no protective measures were necessary. The need to link COVID risk with obesity is a species of that fallacy; we want so badly to believe that we can avoid the horrors of the coronavirus with salads and running that we persuade ourselves to believe perfect nonsense.
* This metaphor is unfair; I actually enjoy Sweetgreen salads quite a bit. They’re almost as good as Chop’t.