Food activist and author, Michael Pollan, says David Ludwig is a “pioneering researcher, clinician and writer who is making a difference in the fight against child obesity.”
Early in his career, David Ludwig used to spend hours in the lab investigating the causes of obesity. At the same time, he was treating obese patients in his pediatrics practice at Children’s Hospital Boston. It wasn’t long before he decided that the lab was the wrong place to look for answers. “Identifying another gene related to obesity wasn’t going to change the health prospects of the children I was seeing,” he says. Instead, Ludwig started exploring the dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors that have pushed obesity to epidemic proportions in the U.S. The prevalence of junk food and junk food advertising directed at children, coupled with few exercise opportunities for low-income children, has created what Ludwig calls a toxic environment. “It’s overwhelming our biology, undermining our behavior and leading so many people to gain weight.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one-third of all children are either overweight or obese and when you count adults, two-thirds of all Americans have a weight problem. Ludwig says the cost to society comes not from the extra weight but from the higher rates of diabetes, liver disease, orthopedic problems, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
In 1996, Ludwig founded the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) obesity clinic at Children’s Hospital, where more than 500 children a year are treated using dietary, lifestyle and behavioral counseling. In 2007, he published Ending the Food Fight, drawing on the clinic’s experience to guide parents of overweight children in making wiser food choices. Ludwig also advises governments at the local, state and national level. He advocates banning soft drinks in schools and advertising directed at kids, as well as restructuring federal farm subsidies to support healthy food rather than corn and soy, prevalent ingredients in packaged foods. It’s one thing for the physicians to tell children not to eat junk, says Ludwig, but “if they are surrounded by it in the school cafeteria and vending machines, and walk home past endless fast food restaurants—and if there isn’t good access to healthful tasty nutritious foods—then what good is the counseling?”
Ludwig remains hopeful that awareness is growing. “Even in situations that can seem overwhelmingly difficult, there’s always the possibility for transformation and change,” he says. “I believe the only intelligent choice is optimism.” At home in Brookline, Massachusetts, he tries to teach his son and stepdaughter by example. There’s no junk food in the house, and it’s not unusual for his 1-year-old boy to reach for the tofu right off dad’s plate. “When children are young, they want to do what their parents do,” he says. “It can be so easy if you start from the beginning.”
“A pioneering researcher, clinician, and writer, David Ludwig is making a difference in the fight against childhood obesity. His work on the role of soda has shifted the debate and made the once-outrageous notion of a soda tax an idea being seriously entertained by policymakers up to and including the president.”
— Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food.