On Tuesday, the CEO of Sweetgreen, a restaurant chain that sells salads for around $15 a serving, said that the underlying problem with the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans so far is that most of them were fat.
“78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people,” Jonathan Neman said in a Linkedin post. “Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to? Is there another way to think about how we tackle ‘healthcare’ by addressing the root cause?”
Neman is somewhat correct in that most people who were hospitalized or died because of COVID-19 also had comorbidities that made the virus more deadly, such as being overweight. A CDC report from March indicated that obesity was an independent risk factor for severe COVID-19 symptoms and death. But while Neman is on to something, it’s impossible to separate his comments from the fact that he profits directly from a particular (and costly) idea of “health.”
In his post, Neman stated “no vaccine nor mask will save us” and floated the idea of “health mandates.”
“COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future. We cannot run away from it and no vaccine nor mask will save us (in full disclosure I am vaccinated and support others to get vaccinated). Our best bet is to learn how to best live with it and focus on overall health vs preventing infection,” he said.
"What if we focused on the ROOT CAUSE and used this pandemic as a catalyst for creating a healthier future??" Neman wrote."We clearly have no problem with government overreach on how we live our lives all in the name of 'health,' however we are creating more problems than we are solving.”
“What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal? What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic? What if we incentivized health?” he added.
Sweetgreen did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
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Neman's argument is similar to the rationale of John Mackey—Whole Foods' chief executive—who told the New York Times last year that eating “healthy” (for example, the foods sold at Whole Foods) is the solution to America’s healthcare crisis. He added that obesity wasn't an "access problem" but a "market demand problem" and boiled down to "poor choices, mostly due to ignorance."
Neman's advocacy for solutions such as targeting processed foods has also already been tried during the pandemic. In July 2020, Britain rolled out new policies to fight obesity and a "Better Health" campaign to focus on individual choices such as smoking, diet, exercise, and drinking. A Nature article reviewing these policies and the campaign found that they relied on "shame and guilt" in ways that could "encourage crash dieting and an unhealthy relationship with food, which can be very detrimental to long-term mental and physical health."
One of the policies limited advertising of foods high in fat, sugar or salt, as well as improving food labels to provide more nutritional information. As Nature points out, however, this boils down to a "simplistic message of eating less and moving more" as opposed to asking about the complex interaction of factors leading to obesity including "genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic factors."
Meanwhile, Neman proposes financially punishing people who eat cheap but unhealthy fast food (rather than expensive but “healthy” Sweetgreen). It’s notable that Neman doesn’t mention, say, the reluctance to fully fund a social safety net that includes food stamps or provide free nutritious meals for the millions who regularly go without, or are forced to eat cheaper, often less healthy options.
Sweetgreen may describe itself as being committed to “building healthier communities by connecting people to real food,” but perhaps that should be amended to real expensive food that has been criticized over the years for being not as healthy or accessible as the salad chain insists.
Update: After this article was published, Neman deleted his LinkedIn post. It is still available via the Internet Archive.