On every episode of “Maintenance Phase,” a two-year old podcast which tackles shoddy nutritional research and anti-fat bias, hosts Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes try to one-up each other: Who can come up with the most cringe-inducing open?
“Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that would never film you from across the street showing only your body and not your head,” Hobbes starts off one episode about the dubious origins of the so-called obesity “epidemic” in the 1990s.
“There’s actually research on that specific thing,” replies Gordon. “And we’re totally going to [bleep]ing talk about it.”
“The only places in American life that you see that many headless torsos are local news segments about obesity and Grindr,” Hobbes says. “As a gay man who researches this issue, I am very familiar with this format.” They laugh.
The runaway success of “Maintenance Phase” is due, in large part, to Hobbes’ and Gordon’s rapport, which frames incisive critiques of fad diets and nutritional statistics in a profane, laugh-out-loud funny banter.
Both started their careers in the nonprofit sector. Gordon was a community organizer focusing on LGBTQ+ rights, while Hobbes worked in international development. That sense of mission led them into reporting.
Gordon blogged anonymously as “Your Fat Friend” for five years before going public when her first book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fatwas published in November 2020. Hobbes conducted investigative reporting for publications like HuffPost and the New Republic for a decade and co-hosted another podcast, “You’re Wrong About,” with Sarah Marshall from 2018 to 2021.
The two first connected over a 2018 HuffPost I exposé Hobbes wrote about myths surrounding the obesity epidemic. (Side note: Both prefer to use the word “fat,” which is a simple descriptor, to “obese,” whose scientific veneer, Gordon says, hides a heap of disapproval.) Gordon read his published piece and was impressed by his alternately scathing and compassionate take on how the medical establishment reinforces perceptions that fatness is a moral and personal failing.
Just before the pandemic hit, the two met for the first time over dinner and talked long into the evening. They cracked each other up. They agreed with each other. What would it be like, they decided, if they recorded their conversations?
If the podcast feels like two friends riffing off each other’s jokes and texting outrageous clips for the other to read aloud, it’s because that’s how Hobbes and Gordon work. They take turns picking out a particular topic for an episode—the rise and fall of Snackwells low-fat cookies, say, or the psychological abuse that kids endure at fat camps—and then spend a few weeks conducting solo research. Then Hobbes, who lives in Berlin, and Gordon, in Oregon, record an hour-long talk. The researcher leads the conversation, while the other person reacts, adding their own informed comments to the discussion.
Despite the spontaneity, “Maintenance Phase” has become a master class in how to critically examine research studies and diet claims. Gordon and Hobbes point out the flaws in population-based nutritional studies and explore the dubious history of concepts like calories and the body mass index. They track down the origins of commonly quoted statistics about the obesity epidemic. For example, Hobbes recently learned that the idea that obesity and diabetes rates will cause life expectancy rates to drop for today’s children was made up. In 2002, a well-known pediatrician threw out that statement during a newspaper interview—despite the fact that he hadn’t done any research to back it up—and soon the US surgeon general was quoting it as fact.
The problem with statements about the health impacts of being overweight, the two argue frequently, is not that fatness is associated with higher risks for certain health conditions and higher mortality rates. They don’t question that. However, doctors and researchers, not to mention thinner people, too often assume that obesity is the root cause of health problems and not a symptom. “We have been told this extremely simple story about obesity for so long, that it’s really hard to look at it any other way.” Hobbes says on one episode. Researchers downplay systemic racial bias, poverty, lack of health insurance—all factors shown to have major impacts on health—because they haven’t investigated their own assumption that fat people should be thin.
Not only does “Maintenance Phase” appear in the top rankings for health podcasts, more than 38,000 people now support them through Patreon, which allows Hobbes and Gordon to focus full-time on their podcast and writing projects. Gordon says that she has received a flood of emails from fat people who are relieved to hear a discussion about nutrition and fatness that operates from a baseline of basic humanity.
“I’m a big believer in public health, and I try really hard not to promote science denial or other forms of conspiracism on the show,” Hobbes says. “But most of what we know about diet and health comes from studying populations. Individuals are a lot more complex. You can’t tell how healthy someone is by looking at them, and you certainly can’t make them healthier by telling them they should look different.”