Elephant in the Room

Past Time to Stop Mocking Obesity

Time Magazine’s cover this week reminds us how hard it is to stop mocking obesity and start dealing with it as a disease. With New Jersey governor Chris Christie looking more likely as a 2016 presidential candidate, Time ran a cover photo of Christie emblazoned with “The Elephant in the Room” for a headline.

We’re not amused.

Simultaneously, behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan published an essay in the New York Times to say that as important as behavior is to him, perhaps the explanation for obesity’s rise has as much or more to do with biology. Says Mullainathan:

For many health problems, of course, behavior plays some role but biology is often a major villain. “Biology” here is my catchall term for the myriad bodily mechanics that are only weakly connected to our choices. A few studies have led me to wonder whether the same is true with obesity. Have I been the proverbial owner of a (behavioral) hammer, looking for (behavioral) nails everywhere? Have I failed to appreciate the role of biology?

Among other things, Mullainathan points to an analysis of the rise in animal obesity aptly titled “Canaries in the Coal Mine” as a signal that we should not smugly think that obesity is just a matter of bad choices.

If Christie’s political fortunes continue rising, a very public discussion of obesity will be inevitable. Let’s hope it can be more constructive that what we’ve seen so far.

Click here to read Mullainathan’s essay in the New York Times, here to read the Time story on Christie, and here to read the cross-species analysis of obesity.

Elephant in the Room, Time Cover Illustration © Dennis van Tine / Time Magazine

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