Doughy DistractionOutrage over Krispy Kreme Masks Systemic Health Inequality

A Krispy Kreme sign glows on a street.

Photo credit: Ben Dutton/Unsplash

Krispy Kreme announced this week that starting on March 22, anyone who has received a COVID-19 vaccine is eligible for one free donut per day. The campaign is the donut chain’s attempt to “find ways to be sweet” and encourage vaccinations. Whether the prospect of a free original-glazed donut is enticing enough to convince vaccine skeptics to receive the shot is up for debate. What’s more concerning than whether or not the marketing campaign will be successful, however, has been the toxic messages about diets, bodies, and health fueling the response to it.

I first got wind of the donut outrage on Instagram while scrolling through Instagram Stories. On one of the several “health influencer” accounts I follow (one with more than 65,000 followers and the phrase “clean eating” in the bio), the influencer’s usual beaming smile was replaced with a furrowed brow and eyes glassy with emotion. “I am so angry right now,” she told the camera. Having only ever seen this alleged wellness expert dance and do at-home workout videos in expensive legging sets, my interest was piqued. To my surprise, the source of her anger was a ring of fried dough. She explained that she was fuming—shaking with rage, even—at Krispy Kreme’s delicious vaccine incentive, asserting, “We need people to eat better, to be healthy. This is the last thing we need right now.” She truly seemed beside herself with emotion. 

Elsewhere on the internet, the Twitter reactions of high-profile doctors echoed the outrage of Instagram health influencers—frustrating, considering that one would expect doctors to be more thoughtful about their approach to health hysteria than your everyday wellness blogger. Physician and medical columnist Leana Wen, MD, began her March 23 thread responding to Krispy Kreme’s announcement by acknowledging that every public-health incentive toward vaccination helps, and postulating that free donuts may indeed “move the needle” (a pun no one needed). Here, Wen is absolutely right: We need enough eligible people to get vaccinated as soon as possible in order to reach herd immunity and end this nightmare once and for all. But she then quickly pivots to her larger worry: If someone were to take full advantage of this offer and partake in a daily glazed donut, according to her calculations, they would gain 15 pounds by the end of 2021. The horror. Meanwhile, Eugene Gu, MD, using more pointed language, likened the donut chain’s campaign to Marlboro offering free cigarettes to reward those who get a flu shot. After receiving backlash for his tweet (such as this user calling it “disingenuous and rather surprising coming from a doctor”), Gu doubled down, saying “doughnuts are poison” and promising to continue to deliver the truth even if it means getting cancelled.

Both physicians communicate two main messages: First, that avoiding weight gain is paramount even amid a pandemic; and, second, that certain foods are decidedly evil and to be avoided at all costs. To be very clear: fat-shaming guised as public health advice hurts much more than it helps. For one, American culture is already saturated with fatphobic messaging. Stereotypes about plus-size and fat people being lazy, undisciplined, and to blame for any and all of their health issues are widespread and normalized. It’s common for people to experience fat-shaming from doctors, nurses, and even mental-health professionals; rather than leading these individuals to lose weight, research shows that fat-shaming from medical professionals more often results in avoiding the healthcare system altogether. In other words, entrenched stereotypes about fat bodies and health dissuade vulnerable people from seeking care and receiving preventive medicine. How can that possibly make them healthier?

Even outside of the doctor’s office, fatphobia creates a cycle of shame that actually hinders weight loss, leading public health experts to conclude that shaming obesity does not combat obesity. Negative messages about food and body size have long contributed to disordered eating, as people internalize ideas of “good” versus “bad” foods and “clean” eating while accepting that weight gain is the most horrific outcome for a person. Fatphobia itself is rooted in racist ideologies, and the very instrument used to determine healthy weight—the Body Mass Index—was developed using European men’s bodies and has been deemed a tool of racial and gender discrimination. These widespread fears and fallacies result in a lot more than bad takes on wellness Twitter and Instagram.

Inherent to their messages is the characteristically American failure to acknowledge the structural sources of disease. In a hyper individualistic nation such as ours, too many people see being “healthy” as the result of “good choices.” In reality, the chronic illnesses that both Wen and Gu attribute to donuts are inevitable results of systemic class and race inequalities. What is one glazed donut a day when compared to food deserts, inequitable healthcare access, unsafe work and living conditions, and environmental racism? By focusing on “good decisions”—avoiding junk food, exercising regularly, prioritizing organic and “clean” diets, etc.—such conversations detract from the societal underpinnings of health and illness, ultimately blaming individuals for poor health outcomes due to factors outside of their control, rather than seeking to alleviate structural issues that have only been worsened during the pandemic.

If the worst thing that’s happened to you during this pandemic is you gained weight from eating too many hot glazed donuts, you’re one of the lucky ones. 

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Even before Krispy Kreme’s donut-shaped bombshell, a media obsession with pandemic weight gain was rampant. Article after article warned of the “Pandemic 15,” peppered those lucky enough to be able to stay home with advice on staying fit while in lockdown, and urged us all to be “proactive about our physical health.” And of course, many Americans may have experienced weight changes in the past year. But instead of assuming this is due to poor self-control or laziness, it’s worth considering that weight gain is simply one effect of the unprecedented stress of trying to survive during a pandemic. With scant government support and widespread layoffs, women in particular have borne an astonishing amount of familial and financial stress. Women have been pushed out of the workforce in numbers so high that economists have termed it a “she-cession;” simultaneously, they have taken on increased caregiving labor at home as childcare (an already scarce resource for many) shut down for COVID precautions and many schools shifted to remote instruction.

If, after a day in a cramped apartment juggling work Zoom meetings with remote-school instruction and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of unemployment and medical insurance, a donut presents a moment of relief—or, dare I say, joy—who are these online health pundits to respond with shame? Ultimately, the issue is far bigger than donuts. Our priority right now as a nation with a growing anti-vaxxer movement (which, incidentally, had its own concerns with Krispy Kreme’s campaign) should be to make the vaccine as accessible as possible. As part of this access, we need to make the vaccine widely available to all communities and to encourage those who might be on the fence to make an appointment. The COVID vaccine, in fact, is one example of an individual choice that actually helps the collective good. By contrast, insisting that people need to carefully vet each food they consume and make “good decisions” is a needlessly moralistic, harmful idea that needs to be retired. After all, if the worst thing that’s happened to you during this pandemic is you gained weight from eating too many hot glazed donuts, you’re one of the lucky ones. 


by Andréa Becker
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Andréa Becker is a PhD candidate and NSF GRFP fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. As a medical sociologist, her research looks at how gender, sexuality, and race shape the way we understand health, medicine, and our bodies.