There is a sudden rash of op-eds arguing that Chris Christie is too fat to be president. Over at Bloomberg View, my colleague Michael Kinsley makes the case. Here at The Washington Post, my colleague Eugene Robinson does the, ahem, heavy lifting. But I’m not buying it.
Kinsley’s column is the weaker of the two. “A presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character, not just on policies,” he writes. Agreed. So let’s judge him on his behavior and character. Christie is governor of a major state and, before that, was a U.S. attorney, a lobbyist and a local officeholder. He’s on television plenty, and if he enters the campaign, he’ll will be in the public eye constantly. We’ll have a lot of opportunities to judge his behavior and character. His waistline is neither a necessary nor a sufficient substitute.
If the case is already closed for Kinsley, that suggests he suffers from the thin person’s self-serving belief that they’re slim because they’re disciplined and that others are fat because they’re indulgent. As anyone who’s even passingly familiar with the literature on the subject knows, that’s nonsense.
For decades now, we’ve known that obesity is linked to genetics. In one famous study attempting to separate behavior from biology, Danish researchers looked at a registry of adopted children to see whether their weight correlated with that of their biological parents or that of their adopted parents. Biology won out. “The two major findings of this study were that there was a clear relation between the body-mass index of biologic parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that genetic influences are important determinants of body fatness; and that there was no relation between the body-mass index of adoptive parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that childhood family environment alone has little or no effect.”
To suggest that you can draw a straight line from obesity to discipline is, in light of this sort of evidence, absurd.
Robinson’s argument is somewhat more nuanced. The problem, he says, is that Christie is unhealthy. “According to the National Institutes of Health,” Robinson writes, “obesity puts people at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, certain types of cancer, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and gallbladder and liver disease.” And so it does.
But the words “greater risk” are doing a lot of work here. To get a better sense of the question, I called Zeke Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health. “I think the fact of the matter is that the guy is going to have to release his health records, and that will give us a much better picture,” Emanuel says. “You need to know if he has high cholesterol, if he’s had myocardial infarction. But just knowing if he’s obese? That’s worthless.”
Ken Thorpe, a professor at the Rollins School of Publish Health at Emory University, was similarly unimpressed. “Excess weight probably shaves between zero years and a year-and-a-half from life expectancy,” he says. Compare that to smoking, which rips 13 to 14 years off a person’s life expectancy. “The problem with obesity is morbidity, not mortality. You have a higher rate of diabetes, bad cholesterol, back pain, that kind of thing. But if you’re taking your blood sugar medications and the right statins and so on, you can control a lot of that.”
So without more information, there’s no real reason to think that Christie isn’t up to the job of being president, or that he’s at a particularly high risk of keeling over should he take office.
Controlling those risks costs money, of course. The obese spend about 40 percent more on health care than the non-obese. Robinson is careful to say that his intention “is not to blame Christie for the federal government’s deficit spending,” but he notes the cost argument, as, in a more oblique way, does Kinsley.
But this argument can cut in all sort of directions. Christie might have more leeway to address a tough subject than a preternaturally fit president like Barack Obama or a candidate like Mitt Romney. He may be in a better place to make the correct and important argument that overweight people don’t need to become thin to improve their health and lower costs -- they can make enormous gains just by exercising a bit more and eating a bit better than they are now. If Nixon could go to China, perhaps Christie could go to the gym.
Robinson and Kinsley’s op-eds strike me as evidence for that view. There’s something about hearing a slim person say “eat a salad and take a walk” that takes good advice and makes it sound like condescension. Losing massive amounts of weight is a lot harder than a walk and a salad. It’s more like an ultramarathon and a hunger strike. And keeping it off, for many people, is borderline impossible.
Obesity truly is a national health problem. But to address it correctly, we’re going to have to get past the outdated belief that it’s all about discipline or the assumption that the obese are not capable of carrying out demanding jobs. Christie’s weight might actually help us do that. If so, then perhaps the governor’s girth, far from disqualifying from the presidency, is a reason to support his candidacy.