If you are going to rant about something, make sure that it’s not a “wrongt.” On Thursday, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno returned to the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with another “angry rant.” What’s made Leno so angry now? Check it out here:
Yes, with plenty of things to rant about these days, this is what he chose. As you can see, he began by saying, “You know something, we are becoming a nation of excuse makers.”
Excuses for not correcting discrimination, bias, or inequity? For not solving our biggest social problems? For polluting? For not fixing the health care system? Nope. He continued with “Scientists now believe that obesity may be caused by a virus and not by overeating. Oh, shut up!”
Speaking of “Oh, shut up,” here was a Twitter response to Leno’s rant from Michelle Vicari, Chairwoman of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC):
SHAME ON guest @jayleno on @nbc @FallonTonight for minimizing, debasing and stigmatizing #obesity. May I suggest you educate yourself about this chronic disease & the damaging effects of the #weightbias you just contributed to. #OACAction @ObesityAction
— Michelle Vicari (@Eggface) April 26, 2019
The OAC is a non-profit organization that consists of over 58,000 members, including scientists, health professionals, and patient advocates, and is “dedicated to giving a voice to the individual affected by the disease of obesity and helping individuals along their journey toward better health through education, advocacy and support,” according to their website. After Leno’s April 25 rant, true to their middle name, the OAC took action and started a petition requesting a formal apology from Leno and Fallon. The petition also encourages greater awareness and education about the causes of obesity and the presence of weight bias.
Another response to Leno’s rant came from Nina Crowley PhD RD, Program Coordinator for the Medical University of South Carolina Health Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, who tweeted via her delightfully named @PsychoDietitian handle: “Omg I woke up early and saw this, what a disappointing, dehumanizing way to talk about a struggle that so many people face. Blaming personal choices as the cause of obesity and making fun of other contributors. Please tell @jayLeno @nbc you are NOT OK with this #OACAction.”
If that can be considered a Twitter rant, we’ll see if two rants make a right.
What did Leno get wrong in his rant? Well, first of all, it’s not clear if any scientists believe that a virus is the sole cause of obesity. Instead, some scientific evidence suggests that a virus may in some cases contribute to obesity with an emphasis on the word may, even though it is still April. A publication in Obesity Reviews written by three researchers from Texas Tech University (Md Akheruzzaman, Vijay Hegde, and Nikhil V. Dhurandhar) summarized what is known about adenovirus-36 and obesity. Studies have shown that animals such as monkeys may be more likely to gain weight after being infected with adenovirus-36, even when the animals don’t eat more and don’t exercise less. Then there was the study published in the International Journal of Obesity that administered blood tests to over 500 volunteers and found that 30% of those affected by obesity had been exposed to adenovirus-36 compared to 11% of those who did not have obesity. Of course, association does not necessarily mean causation, and more studies are necessary to determine if and how adenovirus-36 may help lead to weight gain in humans.
Secondly, Leno’s rant oversimplifies the obesity epidemic and overlooks its complex causes. As I have written before Forbes, if you are looking for a single cause of the obesity epidemic, you ain’t going to find it. Obesity is not simply the result of overeating. After all, don’t you know people who are very careful about what they eat and exercise extensively, yet still struggle with their weight? At the same time, how about those folks who can seemingly eat anything and maintain the physical activity level of a toilet seat while not gaining weight at all? There are many potential causes of obesity, and everyone is different. It is just too simplistic to believe that weight is always simply the result of personal choices.
This isn’t the first time Leno’s jokes have drawn ire. For example, back in 2002, Leno joked about South Korean Olympic short-track skater Kim Dong-sung, saying that after the skater was disqualified, he “was so mad he went home and kicked the dog, and then ate him.,” as reported by Francie Grace for CBS News. That dog of a joke then resulted in former South Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil calling Leno “ill-mannered” and saying, “We should not let such a man, one without common sense, host a TV program.” Then, there was the publication in the scientific journal Language in Society about Leno’s jokes about immigrants entitled “Did you call in Mexican? The racial politics of Jay Leno immigrant jokes.” Otto Santa Ana, author of the publication, wrote that “This article analyzes a set of anti-immigrant jokes with which Jay Leno entertained his national television audience in 2006.” You know that you’ve reached the big time when you are the subject of a scientific publication in an academic journal.
Yes, our food system is changing and in many ways for the worse. Yes, many foods now have more added salt, sugar, and artificial ingredients and are highly processed. Yes, finding healthy food and ways to exercise can be difficult and expensive, especially in lower income neighborhoods. Yes, we need to consider how the changing food system is contributing to the obesity epidemic. Yes, the obesity epidemic is a major global problem. Yes, someone needs to explain why anyone would want edible underpants. So, yes, Leno’s rant did have some nuggets (hopefully not deep-fried in trans fat) of relevance. You can rant Leno that much. As for the rest of his rant, when has perpetuating stereotypes really solved any problem?