Vaccines and masks won’t save us from the pandemic, Jonathan Neman wrote, but the Sweetgreen CEO has a solution: Outlaw junk food.
Neman, whose chain of 100-plus restaurants sells salads for $10 to $15 a pop, published a LinkedIn post Tuesday suggesting that obesity is the “root cause” of health problems — including severe coronavirus infections.
“[Seventy-eight percent] of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?” he wrote, appearing to cite March Centers for Disease Control and Prevention covid-19 hospitalization data.
Neman concluded that covid will be around for the foreseeable future and therefore people have to find a way to coexist with the virus.
“We cannot run away from it and no vaccine nor mask will save us (in full disclosure I am vaccinated and support others to get vaccinated),” the Georgetown University graduate wrote. “Our best bet is to learn how to best live with it and focus on overall health [vs.] preventing infection.”
Government officials, he added, should ban or tax unhealthy food.
“We clearly have no problem with government overreach on how we live our lives all in the name of ‘health,’” he wrote. “What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal? What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic? What if we incentivized health?”
After his remarks were published, some commenters knocked Neman for fat-shaming people, Business Insider reported.
“Yikes, this is incredibly fat-phobic,” one person commented on his LinkedIn post. “Have you considered how our healthcare system systematically underserves people who are considered to be in those groups?”
Neman deleted the post after Vice reported on it Wednesday. But before doing so, he acknowledged the commenter had made “some good points,” according to the Business Insider article. Before erasing the LinkedIn entry, the CEO defended the heart of his original post, saying it “was meant to be a thought-starter on how we could think of health differently (instead of just sickness) and attack the root causes that are killing us beyond the one in the news every day (COVID).”
Neman and Sweetgreen did not respond to requests for comment sent early Thursday from The Washington Post.
To Neman’s point, CDC researchers have found that about 80 percent of nearly 150,000 patients diagnosed with covid in hospitals last year were either overweight or obese and determined those people tended to have more severe symptoms than their skinnier counterparts.
But CDC scientists came to a different conclusion than Neman. While the researchers also support policies that encourage healthy behaviors, they said their work showed the continued need for vaccination and masking.
Contrary to Neman’s implication, vaccines have saved a lot of people, according to the CDC. While the rise of the delta variant has left vaccinated people at higher risk of infection, the shots continue to protect people from covid’s worst effects if they do catch the virus — going to the hospital, being placed on a ventilator or dying.
“[Vaccines] remain the most powerful tool we have against COVID-19,” according to the CDC website.
Neman founded Sweetgreen in Washington in 2007 with two friends just months after the trio graduated from Georgetown. He told the New York Times he had studied abroad in Australia and was inspired by the food culture there.
“It was cool to live an active, healthy lifestyle,” Neman said. “The trendy spot was the healthy cafe.”
Since launching the business, Neman and his two co-founders have grown Sweetgreen from its original location in Georgetown to a chain of 100-plus restaurants spanning the country. In 2019, it raked in more than $300 million, Neman told the Times, adding that Sweetgreen planned to expand to 1,000 locations.
In 2015, Neman did a Q&A with The Washington Post, after Sweetgreen had branched out to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and his native Los Angeles. During the interview, reporter Annys Shin asked him to name his favorite unhealthy thing to eat.
Despite Neman proposing on LinkedIn that unhealthy food be banned or taxed, he told The Post in 2015 that Sweetgreen is all about having a balanced diet.
“I love to eat,” he said, adding that pork buns from Momofuku were his favorite treat. “Part of why we created Sweetgreen is it allows you to eat other things at other times. It isn’t this prescriptive, preachy, ‘You have to eat this all the time.’ ”