New Jersey Governor Chris Christie continues to insist he won’t seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, but many suggest he’s likely to reconsider. I normally avoid commenting on any individual’s weight issues, but I feel compelled to make an exception for Christie, who is obese, for two reasons. First, he’s a high-profile public figure who seems to be at least flirting with those who want him to run for president, which in my opinion means he ought to expect to surrender all rights to privacy in virtually all aspects of his life, as have most governors, not to mention potential presidential candidates. Second, the president of the United States is a role model for tens of millions of people, perhaps especially including children. Anything the president does, or anything he or she is, is likely to affect the choices people make about themselves for years to come. And in this the choices relate to a serious crisis in public health.
Let me start off by saying that in no way do I have anything critical or negative to say about Christie with regard to his obesity. Obesity in general has become a major crisis for humankind, and for most individuals it is a disaster at least for health, and likely in other ways. But that doesn’t mean that people who are obese have done anything wrong or inappropriate, or that there is anything deficient in their character or behavior, or that they should be given a hard time. I’d like to see most obese people motivated and encouraged to adopt healthier behaviors, and supported in their efforts to do so, both for their own sake and the sake of all us, since all of society feels the pain of the resulting high health-care costs, lowered productivity, and higher risks of obesity (given that it has been clearly proven that obese people raise the chances that the people around them will be obese, for a variety of reasons). But I’m strongly opposed to obese people being insulted or otherwise being given a hard time over obesity. Christie is no exception, public figure and role model or not. His weight doesn’t in any way affect what I think about him as a person or politician.
However, I think it’s fair and even necessary to speculate on the effect that having an obese president, or even candidate, could have on the public’s battle with obesity. I see two obvious possibilities:
1) It makes the problem of obesity worse by allowing obese people to feel that there must not be much of a problem with obesity, since we have such an admirable public figure who is obese.
2) It would help millions to lose weight by calling more attention to the problems related to obesity and solutions available to fix it.
Which way would it go? I think it would depend on what the obese candidate or president said about obesity. If he or she talked about it openly as a struggle and discussed the benefits of and means for losing weight in a smart way–namely, through behavior change approaches–then I think this person could be the best thing that’s happened to public health in a long time. If he or she refused to speak about it, or, even worse, insisted on explicitly passing obesity off as a non-problem, or made a comfortable joke of it, I think it would be a public health catastrophe.
I think there’s reason to believe Christie would be the more helpful sort of candidate and president with regard to attitudes about obesity. He was one of the first and very few prominent Republicans to speak out in favor of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, defending it against widespread Republican criticism. In my opinion that makes for an excellent litmus test on this question. Ms. Obama’s campaign is low-key but brilliant, hitting a real sweet spot in encouraging modest, gradual, comfortable, sustainable behavior change of the sort that could significantly improve the lifetime health of tens of millions of children. Most Republicans who have spoken out on it, meanwhile, have treated it like an evil conspiracy. It took courage and wisdom on Christie’s part to go against that flow.
That Christie himself is obese wouldn’t take away from any support he offers of efforts to do something sane about the public problem. Indeed, his own condition would likely add to the impact of any support he offered, and that would be true whether or not he himself is willing and able to substantially improve his health and health risks by losing some weight or speaking out on his own struggles. Were he to take those additional steps, of course, and become president, he could single-handedly become a hurricane of life-saving change in America.
One thing I can’t make up my mind on is what the effect would likely be if an obese candidate or president advocated a less-sound approach to weight loss. I fear that having a president who proudly announced being on an ultra-low-fat or ultra-low-carb diet, or a fasting diet, or a drug-assisted diet, or who expressed an interest in bariatric surgery, might end up doing more harm than good. These just aren’t safe and effective approaches to weight loss for most people over the long term, and embracing such an approach would lead many people to try them and end up regaining the weight, while distracting them from the behavioral approaches that can actually help over the long term. That potential damage, of course, would have to be weighed against the benefits of having a candidate or president who was at least willing to confront the problem of obesity and advocate taking action.
In any case, I truly hope voters don’t make any candidate’s excess weight a factor in their choices. But if we do elect a president who is obese, I hope he or she can at least on a public level become part of the solution to the obesity crisis, not the problem.
By the way, here’s a video of some of the media coverage of Christie’s weight vis a vis his candidacy: