How Dr. Yoni Freedhoff Went to Vegas and Took On Coca-Cola (with a few years in between)
Many in the field of nutrition are familiar with the prolific Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. Founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute (BMI) in Ottawa, he is widely recognized as an expert in weight management, nutrition, and social media. His blog, Weighty Matters, has been named the one of the best for Health Advice by Greatist.com. You can find his opinions in newspapers, magazines, and TV whenever nutrition or obesity makes the news. In Boston, Dr. Freedhoff recently gave the talk, “Rebranding Exercise,” at the Childhood Obesity in the Community Conference, which is where I caught up with him.
We recognize the names of many professionals working in obesity and weight management from their
bestselling diet books, supplements or workout regimens. But Dr. Freedhoff’s book, The Diet Fix, takes a very different tack. The book’s 10-day regimen starts like this:
“How much weight will you lose these 10 days and how much will you lose in total if you stick with this plan? I have no idea. There’s actually no way of knowing.”
“Whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you can enjoy, that’s you’re best weight—and whatever that weight may be, it’s fantastic! You simply can’t do better than your best, and your best is always great.”
What? No chiseled abs? No knocking ‘em dead at a high school reunion? Nope. Dr. Freedhoff is committed to the truth. And the truth has been demonstrated over and over again: highly restrictive diets don’t work.
So how did a doctor who clearly isn’t concerned about the monetary bottom line (His book has no gimmicky promises designed to tear up the Amazon charts and Weighty Matters is not a monetized blog), come to the world of obesity? And how has he become so influential?
Freedhoff was frank. “It was a lot of serendipity.”
The Job: Bariatric Medical Institute
“I wasn't exactly a put together kid," Freedhoff told me, the day after his talk at the Boston conference, "After dropping out of high school I finished up my high school diploma at night school when I realized that working wasn't so much fun.”
And when he dropped in to college, he started as an English major.
“I'd always enjoyed creative writing - poetry and short stories primarily. I switched into science when it occurred to me that employment would be difficult to find with an English degree and that I didn't need a degree to continue to enjoy writing.”
Medicine, he admitted, was a bit of an afterthought. “I wasn’t one of those people who thought ‘oh this is what I want to do with the rest of my life’ from a very early age.”
But it turned out, “I liked medicine… and when I started off, I had grand plans to become an emerg [emergency] doc and I was in the emerg program and after working in the emerg a fair bit… I realized that the life and death stuff that is supposed to get you going as an emerge doc, just made me sad.”
Instead, Freedhoff finished his residency in family medicine and became a family doctor as well as a hospitalist in a rehab practice. He practiced for a few years, but nutrition and weight management started to creep into his work.
“In the family practice… it became very clear that I knew nothing about nutrition, I knew nothing about obesity. And everyone wanted to talk about nutrition and obesity!
“There was a quack, who I won’t name, who was very prominent in my city who was providing really awful, and I think, unethical weight loss services. And I decided that I wanted to, rather than just say, ‘no don’t go there,’ I wanted to be able to provide people with a bit more information than, just ‘no don’t go there.’
“There was a conference in Las Vegas on obesity and I thought going to Las Vegas would be fun. And it just started from there.”
Freedhoff was inspired by his trip, and with his brother-in-law as his business partner, he launched the Bariatric Medical Institute, which helps adults and families with weight management. While Freedhoff’s clinic does help families, he works with parents of children between the ages of 5 and 12 and not with the children themselves.
“I’m opposed personally to the involvement of young children in a weight loss program… Little kids are passengers in the car of life, they are not drivers.” Freedhoff expressed concerns that requiring a child to focus so much energy on weight reduction at a young age was likely to cause issues with body image, self esteem, and eating behavior. For that reason only parents attend the weight loss counseling, while children are provided with group classes on self-esteem, anti-bullying, and managing difficult emotions.
He found success in the practice and the Bariatric Medical Institute added pre and post bariatric surgery counseling to the clinic’s list of services.
The Blog: Weighty Matters
Now firmly ensconced in the weight loss world, Freedhoff developed a lot of opinions. In the early 2000’s, a friend of his was “sick of hearing” Freedhoff “yammer” and advised him to start a blog.
“I remember my response was, ‘What’s a blog?”
Nevertheless, Freedhoff took his friend’s advice. He would write about things that mattered to him and figured that perhaps his patients could read it. “I did not,” he said, “expect it to grow or have the impact it’s had over the years. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work.”
And Weighty Matters has certainly had an impact.
In 2012, Freedhoff caught wind of a new exhibit at Epcot called “Habit Heroes.” In this new ‘experience,’ kids would follow the toned CGI trainers Will Power and Callie Stenics as they defeated the morbidly obese, ‘bad-habit’ characters like The Glutton, Lead Bottom, and The Snacker. He took to his blog and the media took notice.
“It couldn’t possibly be a problem the environment the kids are growing up in, could it?” Freedhoff opined with more than a hint of sarcasm, “...what kid doesn’t want to be made to feel like a personal failure while on a Disney family vacation?”
This sparked a whirlwind of coverage and within 48 hours, Disney had closed the exhibit. When they reopened the revised concept for ‘Healthy Heroes” in early 2013, Walt Disney World’s Director of Public Affairs contacted Freedhoff herself to point out the new, body-positive format.
In the summer of 2015, Freedhoff was responsible for alerting the media after discovering that the non-profit Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a brand new research group focused on obesity was entirely funded by Coca-Cola. The purpose of the organization, it seemed, was to promote exercise and minimize the role of diet in the obesity epidemic.
What had tipped him off about GEBN, Freedhoff said in his talk for the Childhood Obesity in the Community Conference, was the phrase “energy balance.”
“The words ‘energy balance’ are a red flag right out of the gate. So when this was first announced and when people started tweeting about it, including… the scientific director of Coca-Cola, I wondered whether or not there could be some involvement of the food industry.”
At the time, however, there was no information on how the non-profit received their funding. Freedhoff contacted them multiple times and, “eventually I was told that yes, it was Coca-Cola.”
Freedhoff wanted to spread the news. Initially, “I reached out to Gary [Taubes] as I knew the story would pique his interest, and while we’d butt heads together in the past, I knew I could chat with him about it. We both agreed that neither he nor I would be the right person to write it and he [Gary] shared it with Anahad [O’Connor, a New York Times reporter]. I then reached out to Anahad and had a lengthy discussion with him during which I was able to convince him that the story might be an important one.”
The story, which was published on the front page, led to further outrage and the swift dissolution of the GEBN. Within weeks, other public organizations stated that they, too, would stop taking money from Coca-Cola, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
The Book: The Diet Fix
Between blogs, media coverage, and TV appearances, Freedhoff had the time to complete a book. Or rather, he was driven. The book was “something that dragged me kicking and screaming to a typewriter. It was one of those, I-was-compelled-to-do-something moments.”
The Diet Fix came out in 2014, to glowing reviews. Rather than giving readers a list of “do” and “don’t”
instructions, Freedhoff asks readers to “reset.” Rethink your expectations and reset your relationship with food.
To write it, “I rented a shack in northern Ontario,” Freedhoff recalled, “with no internet, no cell phone reception… and in a weekend I kicked out 32,000 words and then I used that to then sell the book.”
He knew he needed help from an agent, but he didn’t want to compromise on content. “What I find most frustrating, which is the primary thesis of my book, is that generally diets are portrayed as one right best diet… You can’t pigeonhole people for so many different reasons: cultural reasons, personal taste reasons, socioeconomic reasons… and say ‘well this is the only way you should do this.’
“The other overarching frustration I generally have, not with every diet book, but with many, is the idea that you can sort of out-will or out think a physiologic drive [like hunger].”
The Diet Fix asks people to consider making changes that are realistic for the long term, and not to white-knuckle it while they diet. Because, he says “If you don’t like the life you’re living while you’re losing, even if you lose a great deal, you’re not going to keep living that way.”
Dr. Freedhoff’s philosophy, encouraging people to aim for their “personal best,” is refreshing in a world full of social media posts featuring young models with perfect physiques, Instagram barrages of juice cleanses, and Facebook posts on the latest ingredient to avoid.
His messaging remains consistent in his book, his blog, and his practice. “Your weight loss,” he explains in the book, “shouldn’t be a number; it should be whatever weight you reach while living the healthiest life you honestly enjoy.”
In the end, it is as much about finding balance in your mind as it is finding balance on the scale.