Dear Eric Hentges

September 2, 2004

Dear Eric,

I read about you over at Mo‘s blog — no, Mo’s other blog. She linked to the article about the new food pyramid. You know the one. The one where you were talking about how if people eat wisely and exercise, they can earn “discretionary calories” that are the ones that are available for things like the occasional pat of butter or the occasional small dish of ice cream. It’s the article that has this passage in it:

Discretionary calories are the reward for living right. And Americans who are overweight or obese don’t have discretionary calories, Hentges said. “They used them up a long time ago,” he said. To get them back, they will have to burn more calories by being more active, he said.

Eric, don’t take this the wrong way, but I say this in total seriousness. The article says you are the executive director of the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, so it sounds like your job is mostly giving general advice about eating healthy, and perhaps in that role, you are qualified.

But I am here to tell you this: You owe it to the health of the people you have been appointed to serve not to say one more word about obesity, obese people, or losing weight until you have figured out what you are talking about, because as it stands now, you are one of those people who makes it worse.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Your background, after all, isn’t exactly in medicine or psychology. Your background appears to be in political advocacy. For pork, specifically. No — literally, pork. I see from the press release announcing your appointment that you were “vice president of Applied Technology and Education Services for the National Pork Board” before arriving at the USDA. As I understand it, the National Pork Board doesn’t actually work to improve the health of fat people. Neither does the National Pork Producers’ Council, where you were the director of Consumer Nutrition and Health Research before that, and neither does the National Livestock and Meat Board, where you were the director of human nutrition research before that. These groups are there to put money in the pockets of pork producers, Eric, not to give sound medical advice.

What you say suggests that when it comes to fat people, you don’t know anything. And because you don’t know anything, you owe it to the people you’re supposed to be helping in your capacity as a government official to shut your mouth.

You see, your little comment — your smug, self-satisfied, tsk-tsking, finger-waggling, smirking little comment — is, while far from the most offensive thing I have ever heard, a remarkably concise, perfectly formed, densely packed example of the one approach to helping people get and keep their weight under control that I absolutely promise you will never, ever work.

It does not work to tell people that they must suffer now to make up for their past mistakes, and that they’ve already spent a lifetime of indulgences and can now look forward to living like monks. Let me repeat my objection, lest you mistake it for a soft-focus, psychologically generous, misty-eyed plea for kindness to people who have suffered enough. It does not work.

I’m appealing to your practical side. I’m appealing to you as a strategist. You know, the kind of strategist who knows how to move some money on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council. I’m appealing to you as a planner. As an operator. As a guy who wants results.

Trying to shame people — to embarrass them, to make them hate themselves for every drop of Coke they have ever swallowed, to make them believe that the reason they haven’t changed their habits yet is that they have not offered adequate repentance for a lifetime of sin — this does not work.

I mean, honestly. This is the one approach that has been tested on more people than any other. Telling fat people how much they suck, how much they have to make up for, and how much they should appreciate all of the great times they’ve had eating ice cream because they will never know them again? This does not work. It doesn’t.

You know why, Eric? Because no one knocks herself out if the only reward is absolution. If all she can hope for is to get back to zero. To be forgiven.

Don’t you see it? All of these people you are talking about, who have “used up” all of their calories — used up their treats, their slivers of birthday cake, their opportunities to have just a taste of what everyone else is having — they don’t owe a debt to anyone but themselves, and deep down, they know it. They are the only ones they’ve put at a disadvantage. Oh, sure, public health implications and so forth, but that’s not really what it’s about. When it’s just you and the mirror — or you and the scale, or you and the bread, or you and the treadmill — it’s not about insurance costs or the national debt. It’s about you.

You’re the one who’s going to benefit. You know who benefits when I choose to change how I eat? Me. You know who benefits when I hit the Precor? Me. Those benefits go to me.

Is this beginning to make sense to you? Are you there yet? Do you get it?

You’re asking all of these people to stop treating themselves. You want them to live a pared-down, apologetic life until the scale says “Ding!” and they can live among the Regular People again. Sure, you say they could earn their “discretionary calories” back by being more active, but there is no mistaking what you are really saying when you say we have “used them up a long time ago.” You are saying that the cupcake we do not eat today is to make up for the cupcake we ate . . . when? Last week? Last year? When we were six years old? How long will it take? How sorry do you want me to be about a handful of potato chips when I was twelve?

See, all of this debt? It’s not owed to you. It’s not owed to the Vatican, or the United Nations, or the Pork Board. It’s owed to ourselves. And because it’s owed to ourselves, you can’t convince us to pay ourselves back if you tell us all we’ll get out of it is that we’ll be as virtuous as everyone else has been all along.

Don’t you get it?

Do you really think I could get up at 4:00 in the morning to pay a debt I owe to someone I don’t have any respect for? Do you think I could change the way I eat, or drag myself into the kitchen to make dinner instead of ordering in, or pass up the free pizza lunch . . . in order to pay off a wedding from 1993?

People don’t work that way. They don’t. You don’t work that way, and neither does a fat person.

I do not work hard to make up for the things I’ve done. I work hard to put myself in the position to have the things I want. I haven’t been sentenced to three hundred hours at a cardio sweat to make up for anything. It’s not punishment, and it’s not penance. I’m not bailing out a sinking ship, you arrogant jackass, I’m just steering it in a different direction, and nothing makes it harder than people who can’t tell the difference.

And it’s so sickeningly ironic, because speaking solely for myself, nothing worked until I gave myself a clean slate. Nothing worked until I stopped writhing around trying to make up for everything I had done wrong. Nothing worked until I stopped assuming I had “used up” anything. Nothing is used up. There’s no expiration date on your right to make your own choices and make yourself feel better. You wake up every day in whatever situation you’re in, and if you do it with shame, like you’re sorry — like you’re apologizing for being in the room, for making people see you, for taking up space — you will get nowhere. It’s unfair, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think so, too.

But do me a favor. Until you’re ready to talk to me about what’s in front of me instead of the pouring sand into the barrel of guilt you expect me to be lugging around? Just close your mouth. You’re making it worse.

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51 Responses to “Dear Eric Hentges”

  1. Jackie Says:

    Please say that you are really going to send him this letter. Please?

  2. Laura Says:

    I don’t usually comment, but that was awesome!!

  3. mediaman Says:

    Wow. If there was a chance he would ever “get it”, it’s after he read that.

  4. Kristin Says:

    Thank you! I read that statement from Eric Hentges. When I picked up my jaw from the floor, I began thinking “who the hell do you think you are to so blatantly judge people”?

    This is my proposal to Mr. Hentges: walk up to a person in your life who you care about (your wife, your mother, your best friend..I don’t care who) and tell them exactly what you said in that article. Then duck! Cause hopefully they will smack you for me!

    Obesity is a struggle to overcome and those who take on the challenge deserve some credit for taking responsibility for themselves. From my basic understanding of metabolism and science, what I ate in 1982 does not count this week, this day, this year. Calories in and calories out does not start tallying the day you are born. Each day is a new day with new choices and we all hope to make the right ones. And gosh darn it, if I made good decisions and chose healthy foods all day, that I am damn well going to have a piece of cake! And I am going to enjoy it. Not a whole cake. Not a slice as big as my head, but a sensible portion that I will savor and enjoy for all of the hard work and perserverence I continue to have in my journey to a healthy & fit person! And by the way, the guy in the corner who is skinny as a rail eating big macs all day….when is his cake allowance up? Health is not weight, thank you very much!

  5. Erin Says:

    You know how much I love you, right? Because I do. I love you.

  6. Heather Says:

    Incredibly well said. That man is a jackass.

  7. Danielle Says:

    You go, girl! That man should have his head surgically removed from his ass.

  8. Julia Says:

    You? Are awesome.
    It pisses me off that everything is phrased in terms of a moral failure by people like this: poverty, weight gain, a bad complexion. What is the goal here? To starve ourselves into transcendence?

  9. Jenn Says:

    Holy Cow – that rocked!

    Send it! Send it! Send it!

  10. Matt Says:

    Amen, sister. Well said!!

  11. Kimmy Says:

    As an atheist, I almost never say this. But I can’t think of a single response more appropriate than:

    HALLELUJAH!!

    And please, do send it.

  12. Ali Says:

    Beautifully said, as always, Linda. I beg of you – send the letter. He won’t care, but we will.

  13. Yana Says:

    Woo and Hoo!

    Your 4th to the last paragraph summed up exactly what I am going through right now: getting myself to where I *want* to lose weight, rather than feeling I *need* to lose weight (for either “good” or “bad” reasons). Very hard to explain the difference to people.

  14. April N Says:

    That jackass’s statement has been pissing me off every time I’ve seen it, and your reply has taken my (our) anger and put in into a perfect argument.

    Please send it. Please. PLEASE.

  15. lex Says:

    BRAVO!!!!

    Eric needs to get a new job and but the hell out of my “discretionary” anything!

  16. Sarah Says:

    I just e-mailed his organization and told him what I thought, and linked to your letter-

    john.webster@cnpp.usda.gov

    Thank you for the work you do.

  17. Heather Says:

    Thank you for stating that so beautifullly.

  18. Beth Says:

    I totally agree with you, very well said!!!

  19. Amy Says:

    What they said.
    Send it.
    Send it.
    Send it.

  20. mo pie Says:

    Aaah. Just reading your entry is like a vicarious catharsis. I’m with Erin. Love!

  21. Elsie Says:

    Fan. Bloody. Tastic.

  22. Laura Says:

    And who the hell is he to say I’ve used up all my discretionary calories and have to earn them back. From whom? The Discretionary Calorie police? I’ve got a calorie or two I’d like to shove up his ass.

  23. sara Says:

    Oh please send him this column in a letter. What an asshole. Seriously, I’m not giving up my donut day at work every other Friday just because some jackass lobbyist says I don’t have any “discretionary calories.” It’s not like I have donuts every day anymore, or even every week. It’s not even entirely about the food… it has alot to do with socializing with my co-workers. Just because I’m overweight, I can’t enjoy that anymore? I know, I could go and not have a donut, but you know what? I like donuts. And if I want one, I’m going to have one. Sheesh.

  24. DeAnn Says:

    Thank you so much.

    The guilt and the shame? I could do without. I just haven’t learned to throw them aside yet.

  25. SorchaRei Says:

    Thank you. Please send it.

    I’m diving deep these days, to find out who is at the other end of that rope you wrote about, and it’s the scariest damn thing I ever did, and the scariest part is even thinking about putting down the self-loathing and shame. I don’t need public officials to pile on me when I am just barely beginning to think about learning not to pile on myself.

    So, special thanks for your timing. You rock.

  26. Kaxx Says:

    Wow… you go girl!

  27. Argyro Says:

    You said it all so perfectly right! Noone should have the right to speak like that. We greeks say when you are not dancing its so easy to judge the steps! Perhaps Mr. Hendge should deal with the poisons he fed the porks with or the mutant seeds he grows the crops with!

  28. Kim Says:

    Wow. You are amazing.

    I three versions of this comment before I decided to cut it down to those four words.

    Thank you for articulating your thoughts so well and for helping me to move just a little further in the right direction.

  29. Joanne Says:

    You understand issues so clearly, and you can always explain exactly what the problem is. I love your writing, and I hope never to oppose you in a debate. When are you running for president? It would almost be enough to make me move to the US so I could vote for you.

  30. ladymisstree Says:

    And this guy thinks he’s helping us? He’s doing us a favour by telling us this? Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Let’s hope he’s one of the paving stones. What an arse monkey.

  31. Erin Says:

    (Not the Erin from above, but I must echo her sentiments: Send it! Send it!)

    Thank you so much for writing this. In the past, it’s been the whole, “Well, I’ve fucked it up for life and am irredeemable” attitude that’s discouraged me from working toward a healthier lifestyle in the first place. When you feel like it’s hopeless, why bother? Thanks a ton, no pun intended, Mr. Hentges.

    I am just so, so grateful that this chronicle exists. Thank you, again, over and over, so much.

  32. Kris Says:

    That was absolutely, perfectly brilliant. Thank you.

  33. Margie Says:

    Damn, girl! That was well spoken.

  34. Bobby Says:

    You go girl! Fat girls ruuuule!

  35. Lori-Lyn Says:

    Wow.
    Very well said.
    Thank you!

  36. Stephene Says:

    Perhaps if we all send it? Perhaps if we all send an email and link it?

    Maybe then he will not ignore it?

    Awesome letter.

  37. PL Says:

    That was just perfectly stated.

  38. amber Says:

    A resounding chorus of Amen! That made my blood boil…

  39. jopreacher Says:

    Woot! Right on sister!

  40. Lora Says:

    linda, where are you? i miss you entries! i hope everything is going well.

  41. kat Says:

    Wow! You may find that you might actually like working out if you start working out. Sign up for a 5K race and train for it. I’ll bet you’ll really miss the work outs you miss.

    Hey, I’m sympathetic. I’m an ex-smoker. But the true secret to any sort of major lifestyle change is that you really have to want to do it. Doesn’t sound like you are there yet (or ever–I don’t know you so I’m not invested in whatever decision you make). Eric used a “tough love” approach; what approach do you think would work for you?

  42. Linda Says:

    Did you even read anything I said? For fuck’s sake, obviously not.

    I do work out, as you would know if you read enough of the site to have a CLUE what you’re talking about. And . . . “doesn’t sound like you are there yet”? How many pounds do I have to lose before I’m “there yet”? More than 115? Because that’s how many I’ve already lost. Honestly? How dare you. How DARE you speak to me like that.

    You’re making a fool out of yourself. Next time, read before you lecture.

  43. Jenn Says:

    Eric needs his ass kicked. 😉

  44. Linda Says:

    In case you’re wondering, abusive posts that demonstrate that you haven’t even read the rest of the site, and that set out to berate me and everyone else who reads the site for their moral failings?

    Yes, those will be deleted. This is a privately run site, and nobody here has to put up with your obnoxious, judgmental ass if we don’t want to.

    This is my space. I will leave up or take down any comment I please. This is not a government site, and it is not a public forum. It is run by ME, and anything I decide I don’t want to look at in the comments because it’s ugly and destructive to people who have enough to worry about?

    Yes, those will be deleted. And there’s no need for you to care. This is one tiny corner of the internet among many. You can find plenty of people who want to yell “FAT PEOPLE SUCK!” with you all day long. Go find them. You’re not welcome at this particular location.

  45. Sheila Says:

    Okay, what I don’t get is how this “kat” person managed to read enough of your entry to get the point (shut up, Eric Hentges) but not enough to notice that everything she’s assuming is wrong. It’s not like she had to parse the entire site line by line in order to figure out that you exercise regularly; all she had to do was read a couple more lines of THE SAME DAMN ENTRY.

    Anyway, although it’s deeply tempting to take advantage of the email link you left up (awesome), a troll has never yet been chastened by further trollage, so I’m just going to post here to say, you tell ’em, Miss Alli. Beautiful, articulate response, beautiful 10/14 post. I admire you.

  46. Junkie Says:

    Plain and simple…..you just rock.


  47. Very interesting letter, and interesting commentary it stirred up in the responses above. I have kind of a sideways viewpoint from most of the others already expressed. I guess it falls somewhere in the middle.

    I never read what the other feller said. I can glean from your letter that it was inconsiderate. My take is that he just plain didn’t know. He spoke of what he didn’t know. Happens all the time, right? I sure do it.

    Guilt is bad. But responsibility is good, right? That’s the part where I’m unclear. I imagine you agree. Just curious.

    Thanks for a great post!

  48. Beckie Says:

    *picks jaw up off the floor*

    Wickedly wonderful.

    There simply is nothing sweeter than a woman who can fight a battle with her brain mixed with 2 parts passion and 1 part sweat and tears.

    Wonderful.

  49. wakeup Says:

    mediaman said: And gosh darn it, if I made good decisions and chose healthy foods all day, that I am damn well going to have a piece of cake!

    That’s dumb. That’s exactly the reason people in America are so damn fat. You don’t eat healthy so you can ‘reward’ yourself with crap food on a consistent basis. You have to eat an overall healthy diet ALL THE TIME, otherwise you’ll be a complete fat-ass.

  50. Kristin Says:

    Dear Wakeup,

    It was not mediaman, but me that said that about the cake and damn it if you didn’t reiterate my point. If you take a sensible view of your eating and make sure to balance your indulgences with a healthy diet then indeed you are eating in a healthful, balanced way!!! And who the hell are you to call anyone a fat ass!! I hate to break it to you, but eating a piece of cake once in a while, balanced with a healthy diet otherwise will not make you a fat ass (I mean, who said “consistent basis” anyway…I believe you just assumed and gosh, we all know what it means to assume….make an ass out of you….)! Get off your friggin high horse!


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