Aug 1, 2019
DO NOT MISS this explosive episode of All Fired Up! The Obesity
Collective is a sparkly new organisation gaining attention
nationwide for its ostensibly ‘collaborative’ approach to
‘tackling’ obesity, whilst simultaneously erasing weight stigma (oh
please how much of a mindboggle is that?!). But who are they
really? My guest this week is Mandy-Lee Noble, anti-diet dietitian
from Nourished Approach in Brisbane, and she has had a GUTFUL of
industry interests penetrating our health narrative. Once we dug a
little deeper into The Obesity Collective we found that the
tentacles of Big Pharma have a firm hold on the goolies of all our
so-called ‘independent’ Obesity organisations. You won’t believe
how deep this goes. Next time you read a hysterical news headline
highlighting the terrors of Obesity Epidemic, know who funded
- Content warning and Apology !! This episode contains multiple
uses of the word ‘obesity’. This is a stigmatising term and not one
I nor my guest Mandy Lee Noble are comfortable using. However, as
the topic of this episode is all about an organisation called The
Obesity Collective, there are a lot of “O” words used.
- There are also lots of swear words to make up for it!
- My guest, dietitian Mandy-Lee Noble is all fired up about
conflicts of interest and vested interests in health care, and
within weight centric research and industries in particular. Mandy
& Louise fell down a massive rabbithole when they accidentally
stumbled across a particularly troubling example of this, the
subject of today’s podcast.
- During a HAES Australia leadership meeting, we came across the
“Obesity Australia” website, and their “fact sheets” were rather
- These fact sheets contained not just outdated, but frankly very
bizarre advice regarding weight loss.
- “Obesity Australia” are ostensibly one of Australia’s leading
‘authorities’ on obesity, and many of the country’s leading
researchers, practitioners etc, are involved. And yet the fact
sheets look like they were thrown together by either a year 9
school boy or an elderly person with very little connection to the
- One of the ‘fact’ sheets was about drinks you should be having
to lose weight, written by former head of Obesity Australia John
Funder, whose diet tips have come directly from 1935. He recommends
“egg flips” and “Miss Muffett’s favourite tipple, curds and
- Does ANYONE know what an egg flip is? And what about curds and
- He then goes on to rage against fish and chips, and goes on a
bizarre rant telling us to strip the fish and chips of batter, and
‘put it amongst the pickled onion’.
- What is he even talking about here? Where did the pickled onion
even come from? 1970?
- John also has a huge grudge against potato crisps, which he
says are ‘lethal’. Now Mandy, being a bit of a rebel, has on
several occasions since reading that thrown caution to the wind and
deliberately and vigorously eaten said lethal crisps, and has lived
to tell the tale.
- Another tip was to ‘drink coke zero’, to ‘fool yourself into
eating slightly less’. This tip appears to have come from Weight
Watchers in circa 1980. Mandy believes this may work through the
process of being forced to eat slightly less because you have no
teeth! Seriously what’s with the totally SHIT advice here? This is
from a highly regarded and very knowledgeable researcher?
- It’s encouraging behaviours that overall are not hugely health
supportive, all in the name of weight loss!
- John also ‘recommends’ that a ‘rule of thumb’ is to always
weigh the same as you did at the age of 25, even if we have less
bone and muscle mass as a result. All of the actual research would
contest that: there is a plethora of evidence to show that as we
age we do get heavier, and preserving muscle mass as we age is very
health supportive. It’s quite literally the opposite of what
science tells us. People at a higher body mass are actually often
healthier than smaller people as they age.
- Some of the information in the fact sheets started to lead us
down a rabbit hole. One of them, written by Professor Joseph
Proietto (who does not reveal his association with multiple
pharmaceutical companies), states that most people who lose weight
will not keep it off, and will regain, so he recommends the use of
appetite suppressing medication.
- As we read, it became apparent that an agenda was peppered
throughout these ‘fact’ sheets’.
- Repeatedly given is the message that most people who lose
weight will regain it; that obesity is ‘a disease process’. We
experienced a growing sense of unease - just who are Obesity
Australia, and who is behind these organisations that claim
expertise and leadership in the area of so-called ‘obesity’?
- People right now may not be hearing from Obesity Australia as
much as “The Obesity Collective”. Now, this might sound like a
trendy cafe or a tragic boy band, but it’s actually them who have
featured in the media quite a bit in Australia recently.
- “The Obesity Collective” was launched on 31 July 2018 (happy
first anniversary!), at a swanky reception at the Charles Perkins
Centre, the University of Sydney’s $500 million hub for the study
of ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as obesity. Headed by Professor
Stephen Simpson, who also happens to be the head of The Obesity
- The Obesity Collective describes itself as “a group of
committed individuals and organisations from across the community,
working together to take on the obesity challenge together, with
empathy and a whole of society perspective”.
- Doesn’t that sound warm, fuzzy….and a little bit scary!
- Mandy thinks they’re a bit ‘fast and loose’ with words like
- So Stephen Simpson is the academic director of the Charles
Perkins Centre, and the executive director of Obesity
- Professor Simpson’s research interests are probably not what
- “Developing an integrative modelling framework for nutrition
using insects that has been applied to a wide range of organisms,
from slime moulds to humans, and problems, including the dietary
causes of human obesity and ageing. He has also revolutionised
understanding of swarming in locusts, with research spanning
neurochemical events within the brains of individual locusts to
continental-scale mass migration.”
- How much has he studied empathy within locust populations?
Potentially more than he’s studied it within humans!
- Professor Simpson has accomplished a lot in his career, he went
to Oxford University, and he’s one of these charismatic figures. He
is definitely bringing a hip, urban edge to the Charles Perkins
Centre, and also to the Obesity Collective, really trying to make
it look engaging, warm and welcoming.
- He’s trying to portray the Obesity Collective as a great
collection of warm and wonderful people who are going to combat not
only obesity but obesity stigma, which is...an interesting
- Professor Simpson recently appeared on ABC’s The Drum program,
on a show about obesity and fat shaming. Professor Jenny Lee was on
(academic and fat activist), as was someone with ‘lived experience’
who was actually one of the Nepean Obesity Service’s weight loss
- Sarah Harry from Body Positive Australia was also featured, but
did not appear live and wasn’t given enough screen time as someone
in a larger body not riddled with internalised weight stigma. Jenny
Lee was also somewhat sidelined by Professor Simpson, who remained
resolute in his attitude that body size is a disease.
- The message of the show was definitely skewed towards
eradicating the ‘problem’ of obesity, but let’s be nice about it.
No amount of empathic-sounding buzz words can disguise the true
- Professor Simpson asked Jenny Lee to join the Obesity
Collective, but she declined.
- So the Obesity Collective’s launch at the Charles Perkins
Centre in 2018 was funded by Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company
traditionally known for its production of insulin, but with a
flooded market, has recently turned its hand to producing weight
- The Collective is trying to recruit different organisations and
individuals including: NGOs, Academics, Young Entrepreneurs, The
Private Sector, Community Leaders, Government, Healthcare Providers
and people with lived experience.
- We couldn’t see any evidence that people with lived experience
are actually a part of the Collective, there’s just this statement
on their website that they’re there.
- Novo Nordisk have described themselves to be ‘active members’
of The Obesity Collective. It’s very prominent on their website
that Novo is the Collective’s main funder.
- So what have the Obesity Collective achieved in their first
year? They’ve been really good at raising the panic button. They’ve
been in the media - not just the Drum, but radio, and print media.
So they’re getting attention.
- They released a report called “Weighing in: Australia’s Growing
Obesity Epidemic”. The report outlines statistics around the
prevalence of obesity in Australia and bangs on about how much
fatter we’ll be at this rate and how many diseases are caused by
fatness. The cheekiest part of the report is where they re-cycle
the statistics on the apparent economic cost projections of
obesity, which they took directly from Obesity Australia’s 2015
report which was prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and
sponsored by Novo Nordisk. (more about them later in the
- The 2019 report did not disclose any funding from Novo Nordisk,
it said it was authored by The Obesity Collective without naming
who actually wrote it. But substantial sections have been taken
directly from a previous report which had unlimited funding from
- The Obesity Collective have also released a ‘fact sheet’ in
which they say that obesity is ‘not just about personal
- Obesity Australia & The Obesity Collective just don’t get
that the very framing of obesity is stigmatising. They really don’t
get stigma. They actually think weight stigma is their tool to try
to get people to lose weight (like take weight loss drugs!).
- And weight loss drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Saxenda, if you can
tolerate the side effects, will maybe give you very modest weight
loss results - if you can believe their own industry funded
- In 2015 in Australia, Novo Nordisk got TGA approval for their
new weight loss drug, Saxenda.
- Since then, they have been quite aggressive in their tactics in
raising awareness of how ‘awful’ obesity is and how urgent it is
that we ‘act’. Through avenues such as these organisations, Obesity
Australia & The Obesity Collective.
- The Obesity Collective also provided a submission to the Senate
Select Committee on the ‘obesity epidemic’ - as did HAES
- In their submission to the committee, they said ‘we are working
to transform the way society thinks, speaks and acts on obesity to
reduce the impact obesity has on all of us”.
- What a mind fuck of a statement! In one part, they claim to be
working to de stigmatise obesity, in the next breath, they
stigmatise it all over again.
- What they are aiming to do - eradicate larger people - is
- They think stigma is a barrier to weight loss.
- They want people not to feel stigmatised coming in and asking
for weight loss drugs.
- Mandy & Louise have been blown away by how pervasive the
industry funding is in this area. We don’t have enough time or
woman hours to delve completely, but this rabbit hole is
- In their submission, The Obesity Collective stipulate the
causes of obesity to be genetic, epigenetic, and biological
drivers. But on the next breath they say this does not excuse
people from committing to try to lose weight. So again, in one
breath stating how body weight is not within our control, in the
next demanding that we as individuals keep trying to control
- This thread runs throughout: on the one hand, all of the
recognition of the science is there, and an almost HAES-y style of
writing, and on the other, we’re back to keep trying to lose
- Same science: different conclusions.
- They also referred to the Novo-funded report from 2015 in their
submission, saying that the overall direct costs of obesity to
Australia in 2011-12 Australia were determined to be $3.8 billion,
while indirect costs were calculated to be $4.8 billion (PWC 2015).
But if you compare even this figure (which Mandy really doesn’t
think is totally convincing), considering that our total health
expenditure for 2011-12 was $150 billion, then it’s just a drop in
the ocean of our health care spending, hardly the health sector
crushing scenario we’re often given.
- The same report also argued that the costs incurred from the
stigma of obesity, including discrimination across education, work,
and social spheres, is ‘incalculable’. It’s so much more than the
actual cost! They are using stigma for their own agenda.
- These ‘reports’ put out by bodies such as the Obesity
Collective or Obesity Australia are always the same format: 1.
Obesity is bad, and getting worse, 2. obesity causes all sorts of
diseases, 3. obesity is going to cripple our health system, and 4.
we MUST urgently act and do something.
- And - it’s not your fault and it’s hard to fix - so - here’s
some thing (ie drugs, put them on the PBS).
- But who are The Obesity Collective? They are actually a
subsidiary of Obesity Australia. Essentially, Obesity Australia are
the parent company of the Obesity Collective.
- Obesity Australia are a registered charity, and they have been
in operation since 2011.
- They describe themselves as “an independent, not-for-profit,
- The ‘independent’ angle is interesting, because Obesity
Australia receives most of its funding from industry ‘partners’,
including Weight Watchers, Allergan (a pharma company who make the
lap bands), and other pharma companies including inova and Novo
Nordisk, who gave around $200 000 to Obesity Australia between 2011
- In 2011, Allergan kicked in quite a bit of money to get Obesity
Australia started - around $150 000. Over 3 years they kicked in
around $300 000.
- Allergan had actually gained a lot of cred for helping to fund
these organisations, it helped them to be seen as a company doing
‘good’. But it wasn’t all good: Allergan, and the Centre for
Obesity Research (CORE) in Melbourne received negative publicity in
the media when their plans to target poor and Aboriginal teenagers
for their weight loss experiments were disclosed to the media.
- Between 2011 and 2015, Obesity Australia received just over $1
million in funding. Of this, 80% was spent on “Board Expenses” and
‘consultancy’. Of that, 30% was “Board expenses”. Tax concessions
also apply as this is a charity.
- It’s a LOT of money for all of that independence. And what
exactly are these ‘Board expenses”?
- Many of the Board members of Obesity Australia have also
received other money (for consultancy fees etc) from the pharma
- Since 2015, Novo Nordisk has provided Obesity Australia with
‘unrestricted grants’ to produce reports about how dire the obesity
epidemic is, and the URGENT need for interventions, including - no
surprises here - pharmacological medicines.
- It is an urgent need for Novo, because in 2015 they finally got
their weight loss drug Saxenda approved by the TGA.
- They’re not even bothering to hide it - on the Obesity
Australia website you can click through to a presentation by Novo
Nordisk to Obesity Australia in which they blatantly reveal that
Novo are committed to ‘create legitimacy and urgency for the
medical management of obesity’.
- Really, what Novo are after is to have obesity declared a
disease: if this happens, they can push their drugs more heavily
and even get weight loss drugs on the PBS, a massive potential
windfall for them.
- The principles of Obesity Australia and the principles of Novo
Nordisk are very much aligned with each other. Even the Charles
Perkins Centre refer to obesity as a ‘disease’, when actually it’s
not. In Australia, the Australian Medical Association do not
classify higher body weight as a disease, nor do the World Health
Organisation. They do talk about weight being a risk factor, but
not a disease within itself.
- There are many people in larger bodies with no or very few
health issues, if we classify this as a disease suddenly a whole
pile of people become suddenly sick.
- How we think about our health status can really impact on our
actual health status.
- And the influence of Novo Nordisk does not end with funding for
Obesity Australia, and the unlimited funding for their ‘reports’.
In the newly formed Obesity Collective, 8 of their academics on
their boards receive direct financial benefits from Novo Nordisk,
for consultancy, travel costs, etc, another couple of academics
work at an institutions that receive funding from Novo Nordisk and
a further 4 people on the Board are employed by
PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC). Which is interesting, because Novo
Nordisk is a well established and long existing client of the
multinational auditors PriceWaterhouseCooper.
- One of the academics enjoying funding from Novo Nordisk is
Professor Stephen Simpson himself - the head of The Obesity
Collective, Obesity Australia, and The Charles Perkins Centre. He
has just received a grant for his research Ancestral causes of
obesity: Understanding epigenetic transmission by spermatozoa;
with co-author Romain Barres, Professor, Novo Nordisk Foundation
Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen,
Denmark. Professor Barres enjoys unlimited research funding from
- This information is not being hidden, it is right there on the
Charles Perkins Centre website on Professor Simpson’s information
- It’s hard to find academics involved in Obesity Australia who
are not being paid by Novo Nordisk in some capacity.
- And this reaches beyond the Obesity Collective and Obesity
Australia, because Novo Nordisk are busily paying our medical
doctors and health professionals as well.
- According to a news article from Crikey, Novo have spent $3.2
million over 3 years on speaker fees and for experts to sit on its
medical advisory boards. Novo’s declarations show 1300 separate
payments to Australian GP’s, nurses and specialists over 3 years,
with recurring payments to a handful of prominent specialists.
- Basically, Novo are hell bent on creating an air of scientific
legitimacy to penetrate a potentially very lucrative market.
- The Obesity Australia website has a ‘response’ to ‘recent media
attention’ which is really talking about the Crikey series of
articles. They don’t actually refute anything that was said in the
articles, they simply say that Novo is not their only funding
- They also said that Obesity Australia relies mainly on ‘unpaid
volunteers’, which Mandy calls bullshit on! Unless these volunteers
are working a million hours, this is simply not true! In their
financial reports, there are less than a handful of individuals who
are actually listed as volunteers.
- It said that they have strict guidelines about industry funding
and that any engagement with ‘third parties’ are passed through
their industry guidelines - “Obesity Australia is transparent
around funding and projects that are funded by third parties are
passed through our engagement with industry guidelines. These
consider the nature of the project to be funded in relation to
potential conflicts of interest (real or perceived), and the degree
of alignment between the commercial interests of the funder and
improving the lives of those living with obesity.”
- We do have to say that we don’t know the ins and outs of
Obesity Australia’s funding from 2017 onwards as they have not
posted any financial statements yet. From 2015 onwards Obesity
Australia’s financial reports became a lot less detailed. In 2015,
Obesity Australia changed and was taken into the Charles Perkins
Centre: “Obesity Australia, founded in 2011 has now joined with
the Charles Perkins
Centre, which will be responsible for the day-to-day
operations of Obesity Australia. Obesity Australia remains in
independent legal entity and will continue to be governed by the OA
- So we now have a lot less detailed financial information about
the ins and outs of funding for Obesity Australia & The Obesity
Collective, but we know that Novo Nordisk are still a major player
in The Obesity Collective. Their logo is all over the Obesity
- It is interesting because the Charles Perkins Centre really
pride themselves on actually researching the impact of industry
funding on how research and how knowledge is produced.
- None of the Charles Perkins research on the impact of industry
funding has been directed towards Novo Nordisk.
- In September 2018 there was a flurry of media attention to the
Charles Perkins research which showed that industry funding had a
huge impact on research outcomes.
- Basically, corporate funding will skew the results towards
industry not the people.
- Disclosure of payments by pharma and industry is
- Professor Simpson himself has had a lot to say about industry
funding, coming out against Coke funding research at the Boden
Centre for Obesity Research at the University of Sydney.
- Professor Simpson said that the Charles Perkins Centre had
‘strict guidelines’ regarding engagement with industry. And Louise
had a look at these, and they basically say it’s really important
for the centre to engage with industry. So there you go!
- So they are saying as long as we are transparent about our
engagement with industry, it’s ok.
- Professor Simpson is actually also the Director of the
engagement with industry committee!
- To their credit, The Charles Perkins Centre are transparent on
their websites about Novo Nordisk funding their launch, about
Professor Simpson’s research grant, and the unlimited research
grants from Novo to write a series of reports about how awful the
‘obesity epidemic’ is, but there is a lot missing as well.
- Off the back of these reports came a shit tonne of publicity.
Louise counted 11 different news articles in which the contents of
these reports were discussed by either Professor Simpson or one of
the Obesity Australia board members, and not once is the industry
link mentioned in any of these press releases.
- This means that for the average person, there is no
transparency. The average person would need to visit the website
and trawl around to see who is funding the Obesity Collective in
order to know. This is NOT transparent.
- There is a narrative being created which is being orchestrated
by big pharma.
- Mandy has been asked to become involved in this world, but as a
completely independent dietitian she declined.
- We will do a whole podcast on Saxenda, because we don’t have
time now! Because the way the research is being conducted needs to
be discussed. Also, Novo have more weight loss drugs in the
pipeline, and Australians are being targeted for their market.
- With sparkly shopfronts like The Obesity Collective, positioned
in prestigious universities, it’s really hard for the average
person to figure out what science is really saying, and what
marketing and funding is doing to how we think about all of
- Sydney uni and the Charles Perkins Centre even put on an entire
event called “fighting truth decay” which was all about how
industry funding can get in the way of seeing the truth! And who
hosted it - you guessed it - Professor Locust!
- What a great technique to build trust, to be a university who
talk about the corrupting influence of industry funding. But then
to still do it???
- Another of the Charles Perkins Centre events was about lived
experience of ‘obesity’, but lo and behold they did not bother to
- Speaking of lived experience, the Obesity Collective say they
have this section called the “Weight Issues Network” which is
apparently for people with lived experience ‘and their carers’
(condescending much??). But Mandy and Louise could find no evidence
of this actually existing. Louise even emailed them asking to join,
and so far - no response…
- In fact - CRICKETS!!
- How ironic that the lived experience of people in larger bodies
is being erased by the Obesity Collective - who do not seem to have
any larger people involved. There’s not even a picture of a larger
person on their website, I mean COME ON.
- On the Obesity Australia website you can click through and see
the members and they are all small. This is awful to see a
committee writing about what they should do to solve the ‘problem’
of larger bodies…...with no one larger in sight.
- Maybe The Obesity Collective need to think about the reality of
inviting people to be involved in a collective that wants to
literally obliterate people who look like them.
- Representation is important, and this is not happening because
this organisation cannot see past their own noses. Still stuck in
- We’ll end on a really scary quote from a Reuters story from
2017 about Novo where the CEO is talking about taking a ‘bet’ on
obesity. “I see a huge opportunity in obesity and I don’t see a lot
of competitors moving into the space,” he told Reuters during a
visit to London.” “Saxenda only accounts for 2 percent of Novo’s
overall sales but analysts expect it to sell more than $1 billion
by 2023, according to consensus forecasts compiled by Thomson
- So - the big agenda is for companies like Novo Nordisk to
provide funding to organisations like Obesity Australia and The
Obesity Collective, to push to have Obesity declared as a disease,
so they can increase the market for their weight loss drugs.
- If they can get their drugs on the PBS, there is huge profit
- What has completely done our heads in throughout are the claims
made by Obesity Collective - to be inclusive (no), to de-stigmatise
(no), to be mindful of health inequalities (no), to be informed by
evidence and prepared to innovate (oh my god), and to DISCLOSE
POTENTIAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST!
- Which they do - but only if you look really, really hard. The
Obesity Collective is a lovely smokescreen, and media reports are
still not disclosing the funding.
- Everyone - please post pics of you eating those ‘lethal’ potato
Find Mandy-Lee Noble on her
website, on facebook,
or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org