U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy - the country’s key spokesperson on public health - spoke last week at a luncheon for Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign. Despite the deep dietary problems faced by Chicago kids, Murthy’s speech largely glossed over nutrition to focus on walking.
The speech came in the wake of similar criticism earlier in the month from filmmaker Laurie David and activist dietitian Andy Bellati. They said Murthy’s approach sounded a lot like the way soda companies frame the obesity debate: It’s not about what you eat, it’s about how much you move.
A pattern seemed to be emerging. It didn’t help that Murthy’s office offered no response to the articles and took no questions after his Chicago speech.
But Monday, the surgeon general broke his silence in a call to WBEZ. He told us that he actually cares a lot about nutrition. He even plans to launch his next campaign on the topic.
Here are some edited excerpts from our interview:
ENG: You’ve taken some heat recently for perceptions that you emphasize physical activity at the cost of nutrition. Is that a fair reading of your stance?
MURTHY: There are a lot of issues that I plan to address during my tenure as surgeon general. I began talking about vaccinations during the measles outbreak in the United States. And what I said, even prior to my confirmations, is that prevention is really the central focus for me. And when I think of building a culture of prevention in America, I believe there are three core components: One of them is physical activity, one of them is nutrition and the other is emotional well being. A few weeks ago we rolled out our first initiative on physical activity and, in coming months, we’ll be rolling out initiatives on nutrition and emotional well-being as well…. That’s because, in my experience caring for patients, I’ve seen that good nutrition is essential for good health, and it’s really at the core of being healthy.
ENG: Can you give a preview on what you’ll be saying about nutrition in that initiative?
MURTHY: A lot of that is still in the works but I can tell you a little bit about why I’m concerned in particular about nutrition. My real concern is that we are as a country are not eating enough in the way of fruits and vegetables and we overconsume sugar and salt in particular. This has important consequences for our health, particularly in terms of contributing to chronic illness like diabetes and heart disease. Chronic illness accounts for seven out of 10 deaths in America and they cost us over a trillion dollars a year, which is this is why emphasizing physical activity and nutrition and changes we can make in both realms is so important to addressing chronic disease...
We are also looking at how we can increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. What’s exciting to me is that there are innovative programs out there that are having success in terms of increasing fruits and vegetables. (Murthy cites a program in Virginia that teaches kids about produce and another in Michigan that doubles the value of SNAP dollars when they are spent on local produce.)
So these are some of the issues we’re examining right now: how to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and increase water consumption and reduce our consumption of sugar and salt.
ENG: Because this was the first thing you rolled out, I think people got the impression that the Surgeon General was simply going to tell us to walk, and not talk about drinking sugary drinks and getting junk out of our diets. What would you say to them?
MURTHY: We are getting to these topics. We are addressing them sequentially, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t talk about them all the time. When I go to communities across the country I hear about concerns folks have about the lack of availability of nutritious food. I hear concerns about neighborhoods not being safe for physical activity. I hear concerns about prescription opiate abuse, about measles outbreaks and range of other issues that are concerning to folks across the country.
ENG: It’s no big secret that the food industry and its lobbyists have considerable influence in D.C., and those who speak out against them can find themselves on the end of some tough attacks. Does that ever work into your mind when you say, ‘Ok I'm going to give a speech and instead of attacking sugary drinks I’ll focus on physical activity.’?
MURTHY: For anyone who has paid attention to my history, not only as Surgeon General, but during my confirmation process as well, I think you know I don't shy away from controversial issues. I took a lot of heat for talking about controversial issues [gun control] during my confirmation process. And what I said, then and now, is that what drives me in my decision on what to talk about and how to talk about is science and what’s going to improve people’s health. I come at that as a physician who has seen far too much preventable disease and who feels a great sense of urgency around this because I feel that the longer we take to make changes in physical activity and nutrition and in other areas related to health, the more people experience illness, and the more people pass away prematurely and the more healthcare costs we rack up. So that’s what drives me.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org