Call him what you want (some critics have pegged him a nanny and a zealot), but Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a man on a healthy mission. The former New York City Health Commissioner led successful campaigns to eliminate trans-fats from restaurant foods and post calories on restaurant menus. As CDC chief he’s tackling obesity and nutrition as one of his six public health priorities—nicknamed “winnable battles”—which also include smoking and AIDS. We talked with him about his plans.
What are you doing this year to achieve your nutrition goals?
This year we gave $400 million for anti-obesity and anti-smoking programs to 50 communities (from large cities to rural areas) with the potential to touch more than one in six Americans. Some examples of programs we’ve funded: Seattle’s Healthy Foods Here brings fresh produce and other healthy options to corner stores and mini-marts in 20 low-income target neighborhoods, improving access for Seattle-King County area residents. The San Diego Unified School District, which feeds 145,000 students and staff, is adding more locally produced fruits and vegetables to breakfasts, lunches and snacks. San Antonio, Texas’s “¡Por Vida!” initiative helps residents make healthier choices in over 100 restaurant locations city-wide with easy-to-recognize menu labeling and logos.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the worst), how would you rank tobacco, sodium, saturated fat and sweeteners?
When my son was little, he asked me: “Daddy, which is worser, sugar or salt?” I still don’t know the answer. Tobacco would certainly be a 5—with just three cigarettes a day you increase your risk of a heart attack by 60 percent. Otherwise all of them are OK in moderation. We all need calories; saturated fat in moderation is not a problem; and we all need sodium, but far, far less than most people get.
Are there any foods you won’t eat?
There’s nothing I won’t eat. I do have a sweet tooth. I eat a lot of fruit because if I fill up on strawberries or an apple, then I’ll have one small piece of cheesecake rather than two big pieces.
How will you know when we’ve "won" the obesity and nutrition "battle"?
When we reach the goal of the First Lady’s "Let’s Move!" campaign: end childhood obesity in one generation. It took decades for the obesity epidemic to get as bad as it is, so we don’t expect it to turn around overnight. It’s not unreachable; obesity was rare a generation ago and can become rare for generations ahead. We want people to take responsibility for how healthy they are and we want to help them live longer, healthier lives.