Deborah A. Cohen

Photo of Deborah Cohen
Senior Physician Policy Researcher
Off Site Office


M.D., School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; M.P.H. in epidemiology, UCLA School of Public Health; B.A. in filmmaking, Yale University

Media Resources

This researcher is available for interviews.

To arrange an interview, contact the RAND Office of Media Relations at (310) 451-6913, or email

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Deborah Cohen is a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She is the author of A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind the Obesity Epidemic—and How We Can End It.

Her areas of interest include how structural environmental factors—social and physical—influence health. She has studied how neighborhood parks influence physical activity and how community characteristics affect health disparities and health. She is working on interventions to promote healthier diets and more physical activity at the population level.

Cohen has directed numerous projects on sexually transmitted diseases, HIV screening and prevention, and alcohol policy. She has served on technical and advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Cohen received her M.D. from the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and M.P.H. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Recent Projects

  • The role of parks in physical activity
  • Improving food quality and reducing food quantity in restaurants/away from home settings

Selected Publications

T. Farley and D. A. Cohen, Prescription for a Healthy Nation: A New Approach to Improving Our Lives by Fixing Our Everyday World, Beacon Press, 2005

Deborah A Cohen, A Big Fat Crisis: The hidden forces behind the obesity epidemic and how we can end it, Nation Books, 2014

D.A. Cohen, "Eating as an Automatic Behavior, Preventing Chronic Disease," Preventing Chronic Disease, 5(1), 2008

D. A. Cohen, "Neurophysiological Pathways to Obesity: Below Awareness and Beyond Individual Control," Diabetes, 57(1768), 2008

Cohen DA, Lesser LI, Wright C, Story M, Economos CD,, "Kid’s Menu Portion Sizes—How Much Should Children be Served?" Nutrition Today

Cohen DA, Story M., "Mitigating the health risks of dining out: the need for standardized portion sizes in restaurants.," Am. J. Public Health. Apr 2014;104(4):586-590.

Cohen DA, Han B, Nagel CJ, et al., "The First National Study of Neighborhood Parks: Implications for Physical Activity. .," Am J Prev Med. 2016;51(4):419-426

3.Cohen DA, Han B, Evenson KR, et al., "The Prevalence and Use of Walking Loops in Neighborhood Parks: A National Study," Environmental health perspectives. 2016

Recent Media Appearances

Interviews: Athletic Business; Chicago Sun-Times;; Health & Medicine Week; Healthline; KOMO-AM; Los Angeles Times;; MPR News Online; MSNBC; NPR; National Journal; New York Times; Nutrition Action Healthletter; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Scripps Howard News Service; The Times-Picayune, New Orleans; United Press International; Washington Post; WBUR-FM Online; WebMD Medical News

Commentary: Bloomberg View; Los Angeles Times; New England Journal of Medicine; Newsday; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Politico; The Health Care Blog; United Press International; USA Today; Washington Post


  • Hand holding remote pointing at a TV, photo by Milan Markovic/Getty Images

    Click and Exercise! Amazon, Netflix, Hulu—Are You Listening?

    Most Americans spend their daily leisure time watching screens, devoting only a small fraction to physical activity. The explosion of streaming apps is likely contributing to this problem. Streaming services could consider adding a pop-up at the end of each episode that encourages viewers to get up and move.

    Oct 11, 2019 The Health Care Blog

  • People play Pokémon Go at El Olivar park in the San Isidro district of Lima, Peru, September 2, 2016, photo by Mariana Bazo/Reuters

    Augmented Reality on the Playground

    As children's screen time increases, their time spent outdoors decreases. How might new technologies merge with nature to help kids get outside and be more active?

    Jul 10, 2019 Parks & Recreation

  • Cans of soda are displayed in a case at Kwik Stops Liquor in San Diego, California, February 13, 2014

    A New Way to Reduce Sugary Beverage Consumption

    Where items are placed and promoted in stores is the most important predictor of what people buy. If stores restricted sugary beverages to a single out-of-the-way area, people who really wanted to buy them could, but would have to intentionally seek them out. Others might be less likely to buy a sweetened drink on impulse.

    Oct 1, 2018

  • Shoppers browse aisles in a supermarket in London, Britain, April 11, 2017

    Why 'Guilt-Free' Lanes at the Supermarket Could Help Fight Obesity

    The United Kingdom is banishing so-called “guilt lanes,” supermarket cash register aisles permeated by junk food. This is a necessary step in the nation's fight against obesity. But what's really needed is a comprehensive approach.

    Jul 5, 2018 United Press International

  • Hand pushing vending machine button

    Junk-Food Havens: Vending Machines Don't Belong in the Workplace

    In the middle of a nationwide obesity epidemic, a handy device dripping with temptation often lurks around the workplace corner—the vending machine. Decreasing the ubiquity and availability of low-nutrient junk food could go a long way toward addressing obesity in the United States.

    Jun 29, 2018 Fox News Channel

  • Large and small portions of pasta and sauce

    Why Obesity Rates Continue to Climb—and What Can Be Done to Stop It

    Too many Americans are being harmed by a food environment that lacks the necessary standards to make it easier for people to maintain a healthy weight. Policies aimed at portion control and cleaning up the food swamp could make a difference.

    Apr 26, 2018

  • Packages of chips and snacks

    Fighting Obesity: Why Chile Should Continue Placing 'Stop Signs' on Unhealthy Foods

    By instituting its innovative food warning label policies, Chile has become a beacon of light to countries around the world. The new government would do well to consider why it should maintain these policies, which in the long run will benefit business and the country as a whole.

    Mar 19, 2018 Inside Sources

  • A food label in Chile indicates that a product has an excessive quantity of salt, sugar, calories, and fat

    What the World Can Learn from Chile's Obesity-Control Strategies

    Nearly 30 years into the ongoing global epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases, Chile has taken the lead in identifying and implementing obesity-control strategies that could prove to be the beginning of the end of the epidemic. The country's success on this front can serve as a lesson plan other countries could follow.

    Dec 30, 2017 U.S. News & World Report

  • Halloween display of candy

    Candy Out of Sight, Out of Mind

    CVS is cutting back on candy at the cash register, making junk food less visible and "healthier" snacks easier to find. Any move that nudges consumers toward healthier choices should be applauded, but CVS could take the lead as a retailer and do away with junk food displays by the cash register altogether.

    Oct 31, 2017 U.S. News & World Report

  • Primary school kids eat lunch in school cafeteria, close up

    Why Nutrition Standards and Policies Should Continue

    Rolling back nutrition standards means increasing risks for Americans and does not bode well for population health. Every effort should be made to maintain strong nutrition standards to protect the health of all Americans.

    May 25, 2017 RealClearHealth

  • Youth foodies Ojangole Max Igune and Regina Nantege create a recipe at the October 2017 Superfoods cook-off in Kampala, Uganda

    How Uganda Could Benefit from a Center for Food Innovation

    A training and innovation center that trains and certifies street food vendors to address issues related to food hygiene, safety, and quality would accelerate the growth of a new Ugandan cuisine that capitalizes on nutritious local ingredients in a sustainable manner.

    May 23, 2017 The RAND Blog

  • Kampala street food vendor Monica Kayagi makes a recipe during the Superfoods Cook-Off in December 2016

    What Street Food Vendors in Uganda Need to Succeed

    Street vendors in Kampala, Uganda, would benefit from infrastructure development, food safety standards, rules of hygiene, and greater focus on healthy products. The city's growing population also would benefit from increased access to nutritious and affordable foods.

    May 16, 2017 The RAND Blog

  • Ugandan chefs display their creations at the first Superfoods Contest in December 2015

    A New Ugandan Cuisine: Showcasing Superfood Qualities of Millet and Sorghum

    The results of a series of cooking contests in Uganda to promote the use of drought-tolerant, nutritious traditional grains—millet and sorghum—signal that a new food trend may be on the horizon.

    May 9, 2017 The RAND Blog

  • Woman jogging in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon

    The Neighborhood Park: An Underused Oasis

    Most neighborhood parks are underutilized, especially in the mornings and on weekdays. But with a modest amount of redesign, investment, and marketing, parks could lead more people to engage in routine physical activity.

    Nov 9, 2016 Parks & Rec Business

  • A women compares food labels in a grocery store while her child fidgets in the cart

    New Nutrition Labels Will Do Little to Bring Quality to American Diet

    Although good intentions led to the new nutrition labels, it is unlikely that they will improve the quality of the American diet. The label changes have not been tested in a real-world setting with the various factors that influence what people buy.

    Aug 19, 2016 Fox News Channel

  • Man in a restaurant looking at a menu

    Lack of Uniformity in Menu Labeling Could Confuse Consumers

    A bill recently passed by the House would loosen nutritional labeling requirements, making it more complicated for consumers to make informed decisions about what to eat when dining out.

    Mar 15, 2016 The Hill

  • Pasta with chicken, mushrooms, and alfredo sauce

    It's Hard to Eat Less When There Is Too Much on Your Plate

    A recent review of 72 studies on portion sizes confirmed that when served more than they need, people eat more than they should. And there is clear evidence that portion sizes are dramatically larger than those served in the 1980s.

    Feb 22, 2016

  • Candy selection in a supermarket

    Junk Food: Why People Can't Control Themselves and What to Do About It

    Americans consumed far less junk when it wasn't so widespread. Consumption accelerated when marketers discovered they could stimulate 'impulse buys.'

    Jul 21, 2015 The RAND Blog

  • Lady using a modern vending machine

    After Trans Fats, Target America's Overeating

    In June, the FDA gave manufacturers three years to remove artificial trans fat from the food supply. This is an important step, but solving the problem of diet-related chronic diseases is much more complex than banning a single additive.

    Jul 10, 2015 U.S. News & World Report

  • A bacon double cheeseburger with fries, pickles, and tomato on the side

    Food Providers: Regulators Should Insist They 'First, Do No Harm'

    Everyone needs food, water, and shelter, yet society offers protective standards and regulations for just two of these three essentials. Food regulations focus on preventing illnesses like botulism, but when it comes to chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, regulations offer little protection to U.S. consumers.

    Apr 8, 2015 The RAND Blog

  • Woman comparing soda labels in a supermarket

    Supermarkets Are the Problem

    Thirty percent of all supermarket sales can be attributed to end-of-aisle displays, where retailers have placed more foods that increase the risk of obesity and chronic diseases. Relocating those foods to less conspicuous places would still allow those who want them to get them, but the decision to buy would be deliberate rather than impulsive.

    Feb 26, 2015 Slow Food USA

  • A blurry convenience store aisle

    A New Year's Resolution: Target Practices That Undermine Weight Control

    Many will vow to lose weight in the coming year, but most will inevitably fail, not from lack of motivation or knowledge but from insuperable forces undermining their best intentions. America should resolve to address obesity where it begins: the point of purchase.

    Dec 29, 2014 Newsweek

  • A woman reading a menu at a restaurant

    Calorie Labels Won't Fix America's Problem with Away-From-Home Food

    The FDA's new guidelines for calorie labeling on restaurant menus, retail establishments like convenience stores and movie theaters, and vending machines are a long-due recognition that eating away from home can be hazardous to health. But the new mandate falls far short of providing the necessary fix.

    Dec 10, 2014 The Hill

  • College students in a cafeteria line

    To Fight Obesity, Make UC a Laboratory

    With its Global Food Initiative, the University of California is seeking ways to help the billion people who go to bed hungry each night. At the same time, UC could also be addressing obesity. Experimenting with changes to the food environment and documenting their impact on diet and weight gain would accelerate progress on this national problem not just for students, but for all Americans.

    Oct 30, 2014 The Orange County Register

  • Food court signs in Las Vegas

    Always Hungry? Here's the Real Reason Why

    The problem of obesity cannot be attributed to a single dietary or physiological factor, like too much sugar, too much fat, or even factors like viruses, bacteria, and endocrine disrupters. The real problem is that Americans now live in a food swamp and there is just too much food easily available.

    Aug 15, 2014 Fox News Channel

  • Benjamin Lesczynski, 8, of New York, takes a sip of a "Big Gulp" while protesting the proposed "soda ban" suggested by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, July 9, 2012

    Let's Regulate Food Like We Do Alcohol

    To help people avoid overeating, the kinds of policies effective in controlling alcohol consumption should be applied to food — standardizing portion sizes, limiting impulse marketing and reducing the convenience and salience of foods most closely associated with obesity and chronic diseases.

    May 19, 2014 New York Daily News

  • family dining on a restaurant patio

    Restaurant Standards Could Curb Fat America

    Given the high prevalence of obesity and chronic diseases and their enormous societal burden, every restaurant, including fast food outlets, should offer healthier meal options and discourage over-consumption.

    Mar 26, 2014 USA Today

  • a large BLT sandwich in a restaurant

    Obesity Epidemic: Standardized Portion Sizes in Restaurants Could Help Solve Public Health Crisis

    Ideally, restaurant food should be tailored and sold the way clothing is, so people can get the exact amount that is appropriate for their bodies. Such sizing options should be required in all dining establishments to give people the option of consuming meals that fit.

    Mar 22, 2014 San Jose Mercury News

  • U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama exercises with children at Orr Elementary School in Washington

    Michelle Obama Shouldn't Be the Only One Fighting Obesity

    To identify the policies that will make a big fat dent in obesity rates, we first need an accurate diagnosis: Americans are overweight and obese because they are inundated with too much food. The use of impulse marketing strategies has skyrocketed, with invitations to indulge at every turn.

    Jan 17, 2014 Politico

  • woman looking into a bakery window, store, people, food, caucasian, shop, sweet, woman, cake, market, happy, pastry, purchase, sale, supermarket, grocery, shelf, retail, person, commerce, choice, buy, biscuit, cookies, commercial, female, bakery, baker, work, product, wood, city, street, urban, shopper, yummy, snack, sugar, varied, offer, homemade, patisserie, fresh, goods, production, torte, service, healthy, nutrition, meal, customer

    The Conspiracy to Keep You Fat

    Just as we needed policies to protect people from having alcohol thrust in their faces everywhere they went, we need to develop and implement policies that protect people from food cues and triggers designed to make them eat when they're not hungry and over-consume.

    Jan 6, 2014 Los Angeles Times

  • Women sit on a bench in New York's Times Square

    Five Myths About Obesity

    The obesity epidemic is among the most critical health issues facing the United States. Although it has generated a lot of attention and calls for solutions, it also has served up a super-sized portion of myths and misunderstandings.

    Dec 27, 2013 The Washington Post

  • Candies in Santa Claus wrappers

    'Tis the Season to Be Wary

    During the holiday season, a time when overindulgence is a tradition for many, food marketing creates especially serious challenges for people trying to limit their intake and make careful decisions about healthier eating.

    Dec 23, 2013 The RAND Blog

  • Nutrition facts on a microwave popcorn box

    The FDA Ban on Trans Fat Should Be Just the Beginning

    Most people lack the information they need to judge or track the quantity and quality of the nutrients they consume. The FDA should take a disease prevention approach — as it is currently doing with trans fat — in promoting standards that address how all foods are prepared and served away from home.

    Nov 26, 2013 The Health Care Blog

  • man putting ketchup on a hot dog at a snack bar

    The Skinny on the Freshman 15

    Colleges should acknowledge their responsibility not to put their students at risk for weight gain, obesity and the host of chronic diseases related to poor diets, writes Deborah Cohen. Students have to make their own food choices, but it's colleges who're setting the table.

    Aug 21, 2013 USA Today

  • a glass of cola with ice cubes

    Ruling Can Lead to Tougher New York Soda Ban

    New York should see the judge's ruling as an opportunity to revise the law to close the loopholes, including the Big Gulp exemption, and develop regulations in line with the scientific consensus that even 16 ounces is way too much, writes Deborah Cohen.

    Mar 13, 2013 Bloomberg View

  • woman at grocery store checkout

    Candy at the Cash Register—A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease

    Although placement is a factor that is right in front of our noses, we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor, like carcinogens in water, because placement influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control, write Deborah A. Cohen and Susan H. Babey.

    Oct 11, 2012 New England Journal of Medicine

  • people eating at a Mexican-American restaurant

    New York City Is Right to Treat Soda Like 'Demon Rum'

    It is time we treated food with the same respect we hold for the power of alcohol. It's time to develop and implement regulations that will help us moderate our diets and stem the obesity epidemic, write Deborah Cohen and Lila Rabinovich.

    Sep 14, 2012 Newsday

  • Two large tumblers full of soda

    Bloomberg Right That Portion Control Works

    Regulations requiring the restaurant industry to serve standardized portion sizes should be mandated and enforced by the same authorities responsible for checking hygienic conditions in food outlets, writes Deborah Cohen.

    Jun 11, 2012 USA Today

  • Marketing Is Making Us Fat

    Published commentary by RAND staff: Marketing is Making Us Fat, in United Press International.

    Mar 7, 2007 United Press International

  • A Desired Epidemic: Obesity and the Food Industry

    Published commentary by RAND staff: A Desired Epidemic: Obesity and the Food Industry, in

    Feb 21, 2007

  • Flooded with Food

    Published commentary by RAND staff: Flooded with Food, in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Jan 7, 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette