Weight loss, obesity struggles and the state of New Jersey are hot issues this week with Gov. Chris Christie openly discussing his struggle and then blasting a former White House physician who publicly expressed her concern about his weight. But Christie isn’t the only one discussing the issue. Thursday, it was that other television savvy New Jersey politician: Newark Mayor Cory Booker launched a new initiative with Weight Watchers to combat obesity in his city.
The program–already launched in Austin, Boston and Pittsburgh–offers discounted Weight Watchers memberships to more than 3,100 City of Newark employees. They get the first month free and can attend meetings at a discounted rate for up to one year. At 26 percent, Newark has a higher obesity rate than the rest of the state (24 percent). Nationwide one third of Americans are obese, while two thirds are overweight.
Booker isn’t new to the issue. He is constantly tweeting about his vegetarian diet, as well as his own efforts to exercise and lose weight, and is a vice -chair on the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthy America initiative. He even launched a Let’s Move! Newark in 2010 to try and cut down on childhood obesity rates. Last year he also embarked on a highly publicized food stamp challenge, eating only what he could buy on a food stamp budget for a week, to bring attention to the necessity of social programs like food stamps. In Newark, he has tried to make sure that grocery stores in low income areas stock healthy food, trying to eliminate “food deserts.”
Weight Watchers CEO David Kirchhoff said they began working with Booker on the project about six months ago. ”Obesity is a multi-faceted problem and the solution is also multi-faceted,” Kirchhoff said, noting he has actually lost 45 pounds in his own battle to get trim.
After getting in on the fat jokes on the “Late Show with David Letterman” Monday night, Christie openly spoke about his 30-year struggle Tuesday, saying he’s “making the best effort I can and sometimes I’m successful and other times I’m not.” Wednesday, after a former White House physician said she was worried “about this man dying in office,” he hit back calling her a “hack.” The back and forth made headlines and stretched the public discussion of his weight to another day.
The comments are obviously coincidental to the Newark and Weight Watchers initiative, but it dovetails with Christie’s open struggle, something statistically most Americans are also battling.
“I think it’s completely inappropriate and just wrong to get on anyone’s back about their weight,” Kirchhoff said, referring to the now public discussion over the possible 2016 presidential candidate’s weight. “It’s a personal situation, personal health condition and it needs to be treated with respect. And I say that as someone who has his own struggles with weight. I don’t need someone browbeating me. Anybody’s decision to tackle their weight is their struggle, their journey. It just doesn’t seem right to jump in the fray and cast judgment.”
Doctors also say teasing and judgmental behavior can backfire on a person struggling with obesity.
Dr. Rebecca Puhl, director of research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, said, “There seems to be this public perception that shaming, intimidating, making fun of people with obesity … will motivate people to lose weight, when we actually see the opposite is true.”
“Public scrutiny, fat jokes lead people to engage in unhealthy eating, increase consumption of calories, avoidance of physical exercise, and impairs their efforts to lose weight,” Puhl said.
Kirchhoff said part of the obesity epidemic in the country comes from the fact “we as human beings are wired for a world of food scarcity … for tens of thousands of years not knowing where the next meal is coming from.”
He added that the “past 30 to 40 years the food environment has changed overnight and there are 600 more calories available per person today than in 1970…. There is food overabundance, crazy portions 24/7 and food available all the time as opposed to when we grew up, we ate when mom gave us food.”
He added that as people are “dealing with this crazy food environment we live in” it is “completely insane” to blame people for their weight issues.
Weight Watchers is working on other programs specifically targeting low income neighborhoods to fight obesity including awarding $1 million’s worth of Weight Watchers meetings to a small, medium-sized and large city.
In a press release, Booker said Newark has “an important role to play in turning back the rising tide of obesity in this country” and at the event Thursday he jokingly admitted to “hanging out with those guys last night, Ben and Jerry,” which got laughs according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
Booker was not available on Thursday for interviews to discuss his initiative.
Booker considered challenging Christie in his re-election bid this year, which would have created a high-profile race between the two P.R.-savvy politicians, but he instead announced a run for U.S. senate next year when Frank Lautenberg’s term expires. Lautenberg has not said whether he plans to run for another term, creating friction between the two. Booker did officially endorse Christie’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, last month.