Tom Colicchio's Fat Chance

Why the Top Chef host should have called a fat girl fat.

A longtime foe of childhood obesity, Tom Colicchio in 2010 addressed a Congressional committee on the subject of improving school lunches. But on last week's Top Chef, when a contestant succumbed to high blood pressure, nobody peeped about obesity.

It's pretty hip to urge tubby kids to exercise and eat better: Colicchio, Ming Tsai, Maria Hines, and Sam Kass have joined First Lady Michelle Obama in calling for increased rope-jumping and hula-hooping during non-school hours. They want kids to eat more fruit and fewer french fries. As Obama explained in a November address to Partnership for a Healthier America, an active lifestyle is "critical for maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol." But chastising fellow adults for their diet choices is still considered very bad manners —even if the lecture could provide a public service.

On Wednesday's episode of Top Chef, Sarah Grueneberg of Chicago's Spiaggia was overcome by heat while smoking chicken for a barbecue challenge. As Colicchio wrote on his blog recapping the episode, it was 140 degrees near the pits. And the chefs weren't just sunning themselves: They were manhandling massive briskets and running between stations.

But Grueneberg wasn't rushed to the hospital because she was sweaty. The medic whistled when he read her blood pressure. That's almost certainly a function of Grueneberg's weight; according to the U.S. Surgeon General, high blood pressure is twice as common in obese adults.

As a certified personal trainer, I understand a woman doesn't have to be stick-thin to qualify as healthy. Plenty of women who appear to be carrying a few extra pounds are in excellent cardiac condition. But I feel comfortable calling out Grueneberg as fat, and it bothers me that so few chefs and food writers who stress the importance of good nutrition are willing to do likewise.

Would discussing Grueneberg's weight embarrass her? Probably so, but she's a contestant on a reality show, hardly a leading forum of dignified behavior. Is it fair to fault Grueneberg for overeating when her teammates were filmed smoking? Perhaps not, but obesity is head judge Colicchio's cause—and it's interfering with Grueneberg's ability to be a chef, let alone a top one.

Cooking in a commercial kitchen is incredibly demanding. Many Americans would no doubt struggle merely to stay on their feet for eight hours, never mind the heat and heavy lifting. The stereotype of the jolly, fat chef has faded as the pace of modern restauranteering has picked up. According to a survey by the British Culinary Federation, chef obesity in the UK has dropped 75 percent over the past two decades.

Still, many chefs have allowed their fitness to falter: Fat Chef, a new Food Network show premiering later this month, promises "an inside look at the struggle chefs face when their love for food becomes overwhelming."

These chefs aren't only endangering their careers and their lives: They may be contributing to the national obesity crisis. In a 2006 study of chefs in South Carolina—where 65 percent of the adult population is classified as overweight or obese—researchers found that 76 percent of them "thought that they served 'regular' portions," even though the portions of steak and pasta they actually served were two to four times larger than what the USDA recommends. While it's not clear whether overweight chefs are more apt to serve bigger portions, numerous studies have linked increased portion sizes to the obesity epidemic. Americans have a documented tendency to eat what's put in front of them, regardless of their appetite levels.

It's terrific that Colicchio and his peers are fighting for children's health. But we shouldn't tolerate in the kitchen what we condemn in the classroom.

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