America’s obesity epidemic requires action, not posturing

America has an obesity problem and, at a time when we should be mustering all the resources we can to combat this deadly epidemic, some powerful players — like my former employer Pinterest — are opting out of the fight.

First, let’s be clear that there is a difference between being a little overweight and being obese. America’s obesity epidemic has nothing to do with beach bodies, six packs or fitting a mold of subjective beauty. What the epidemic does have to do with is heart disease, type 2 diabetes and ultimately death.

While our increased societal desire to avoid offense is admirable, an outright ban on weight loss ads — like the one Pinterest so hubristically announced recently — may sound like a righteous endeavor (Pinterest chalks it up to inclusiveness), but in fact it’s just self-righteous posturing that removes one of our best tools to fight this very real health crisis.

That’s because America’s obesity problem is, in many respects, a marketing problem.

Over the past few decades, Americans have been fed (pun intended) a devastating amount of nutritional misinformation. These myths — like fat is bad and calories are all that matter — have led Americans to embrace a national diet full of processed carbs, corn syrup and low-calorie, low-fat junk food, devoid of the nutrients we need to be truly healthy.

Thankfully, a number of mission-driven companies have emerged, employing psychology, behavior change techniques and personalized coaching to help combat this misinformation and guide willing Americans to the kind of lifestyle changes that extend — and improve — life. And these companies are aided in their missions by the advertising and amplification that companies like Pinterest provide.

These efforts are working. Millions of Americans want to be healthy. They’re beginning to understand that losing excess weight is key to regaining control of their health. We should be encouraged by this shift. It means we’re well positioned to correct health misinformation and save millions of people from unnecessary suffering.

Pinterest’s move to outright ban all ads referring to weight loss — regardless of quality of information — is woefully misguided.

One reason Pinterest cites in justifying its ban is a rise in eating disorders. To be sure, eating disorders are also a health problem. 9% of Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. But 9% of American adults are considered severely obese right now — up from just 4.7% in 1999. On top of that, more than 40% of American adults and 20% of our kids are considered obese. These percentages represent more than $100 billion in annual healthcare costs. But overweight and obesity don’t just represent dollars. The NIH estimates that 300,000 Americans die every year due to complications from being overweight and obese.

Now of course we don’t have to choose between combating eating disorders and combating obesity (though if we did, it seems inexplicable that we’d choose the one affecting a small fraction of the other). And this is precisely what’s so dangerous about Pinterest’s policy announcement.

By suggesting that all weight loss ads are unacceptable, Pinterest has shrunk from its leadership position in the advertising industry. And if other ad platforms follow Pinterest down this wrong path simply because Pinterest is in the lead, far more harm will be done than good.

There are other paths Pinterest can take that may not invoke the same degree of congratulatory backpatting among the hyperwoke, but which might actually do something to help both the obesity problem and eating disorders.

These harder-to-make, but infinitely more helpful moves might include:

  • Screening ads to block out weight loss gimmicks and allowing ads from the companies using science-backed interventions to help people lose weight
  • Allowing ads from the nearly 2,000 CDC-recognized weight loss/diabetes prevention programs conveniently listed in the CDC database
  • Allowing ads that emphasize healthy weight, not aesthetic weight (avoiding diabetes is very different from fitting into your old jeans)
  • Cracking down on more of the fashion-oriented organic content that is far more likely to inspire eating disorders than a testimonial from someone who learned to eat more healthily

Leadership is hard precisely because it requires courage and nuance. Having worked at Pinterest for nearly four years, I know that Pinterest possesses the required courage and sophistication to navigate these trade-offs. And I call on my friends and former colleagues to join me and so many others from the medical and healthcare community in actively combating obesity. To do so is the only responsible course of action.