08/24/2012 12:01 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Politicians Face Trending Scandal: FatGate


Only a few years ago, if you'd attacked a politician for his weight, or complained about where she ate her dinner, it would be seen as poor form. Reporters could write about a politician's views on taxes and trade, but the burgers and buns on his dinner plate were off limits.

How times have changed.

Consider that even in ever-polite Canada, twice in the last few months, stories have pointed out that, well, size matters.

First, in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford was mocked by local newspapers after a passerby filmed him entering a fast food restaurant. Then, in the Quebec election campaign, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois insisted that a future health minister should "set a good example" when it came to his or her lifestyle. She said it in the same riding where a prominent -- and obese -- local candidate running for another party has been seen as a potential health minister.

As the obesity issue becomes more and more political, personal food choices are now fair game. Looking across the 49th parallel, we see a similar trend. Last winter, the Washington Postopenly asked if First Lady Michelle Obama was a hypocrite. Her crime: she'd ordered burgers at a restaurant at the same time she was publicly campaigning against childhood obesity. (Remember: Mrs. Obama is a healthy weight.) In May, a group of vegan doctors wrote to President Obama, insisting the First Family should only ever be seen eating healthy foods in public.

This turn of events isn't helpful, but it was predictable. It's the inevitable consequence of bad public health thinking and shortsighted public health politics.

In recent years, members of the health care community have expressed alarm about the long-term costs and health consequences of the obesity epidemic. (Count me among them.) But the fight against obesity has also mobilized a growing number of public health zealots, who've taken a punitive, selective and judgmental approach to anti-obesity policy.

There's the usual search for villains -- usually "corporations." There's the usual search for victims, as if cheeseburgers were devoured only by helpless people. In the fight for attention, public health advocates have been making ever-more edgy claims: eating eggs is be as bad as smoking, soda is worse than smoking, and fast food is as addictive as heroin.

And that kind of rhetoric has consequences. If you talk as though every milkshake sold is a sin, it can't be a surprise that everyone drinking a milkshake gets painted as a sinner.

Take the example of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. One of the Center's areas of policy focus is discrimination against the overweight and the obese. Yet ironically, the Rudd Center's hot rhetoric feeds the image of the obesity epidemic as a corporate morality tale comparable to the struggle against smoking. If soda is so dangerous that it must be taxed and its size limited, then surely it doesn't matter if the First Lady eats well and exercises regularly; what matters is whether she had a sip of the "poison."

What to do? Tune out the hysteria. If you do, you'll find that most doctors agree on a more reasonable perspective. Obesity is not something that can be blamed on one ingredient or one meal. Yes, it's unwise to drink too much sweetened soda, or to eat fast food regularly. But if you balance calories-in with calories-out and balance your food choices over time, it's not necessary to consider every meal a fight between good and evil.

But that reasonable message is getting lost in the din of "solutions." The balanced diet is too nuanced a concept in a world where public health advocates demand The One Great Law and the One Great Tax that will save everyone from the evils of Big Food and Big Soda.

Some in the public health community believe that they can use laws and taxes to socially engineer the North American diet -- and, for that matter, the German diet, the Chinese diet and the Mexican diet. But in the end, individuals will have the last say in what they buy, cook, serve, eat and drink. If we want them to choose wisely, we have to be careful about how we judge those choices.

Even if the people in question happen to be in politics.