2013-01-16

Obesity and Judgment

The Center for Disease Control says that in 1962, 13 percent of the US was obese. By 2010, 35.7 percent of US adults qualify as “obese.” We get judgmental about this. If obesity is a “disease” that is, or is becoming, “epidemic,” then it differs from other diseases in the degree to which many of us blame those who suffer from it. There’s discrimination against the overweight, and the bias and judgmentalism gets mixed up with what might be legitimate concern about public health.

There is a prevailing attitude that the obese are morally contemptible. Studies show that employers
“not only tend to assume that a fat person will be less reliable, energetic, and efficient, but are reluctant to hire the overweight for positions (receptionists, etc.) in which their size might affront the delicate sensibilities of potential customers and the general public.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
One-third of US doctors (and wouldn’t we like to hope that more than two-thirds of doctors would know better?) said they thought obese patients were weak-willed, sloppy and lazy.

Moral judgment is a strategy – generally not a very good one – for addressing a concern. It’s scary to us that the obesity rate in this country has climbed so precipitously from 50 years ago. We read warnings that obesity will soon exact a greater toll than smoking, and that the current generation could be the first to die before their parents.

On the other hand, a new study released last week shows that people who are modestly overweight have a 6 per cent lower rate of premature death from all causes than people of ideal, "healthy" weight, while even those who are mildly obese have no increased risk. The study, headed by Katherine Flegal, a distinguished epidemiologist from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was one of the largest reviews of research ever conducted. Flegal and her team examined results from 100 studies from around the world, involving three million people and 270,000 deaths. Only the severely obese, with a body mass index above 35, have a significantly increased mortality. Underweight people, meanwhile, have a 10 per cent higher rate of premature death than those of normal size.

We must note that this research looks only at the death rates, not illness (i.e., mortality, not morbidity). The study results do not cast into question the consensus understanding that heavier people are sick more. Indeed, one possible explanation for the lower death rate is that, because overweight people are sick more, they’re in their doctor’s office more, and they end up getting medical treatment, such as to control blood pressure, sooner.

Whatever our judgments, and whatever the reality of the health issues, the reason the seven deadly sins are pretty much universal is that their source is in an impulse we need, a drive that is healthy. It’s good to eat. It’s good to enjoy life, to have gusto for the pleasures of living. It becomes a problem only when it goes too far – and it’s at risk of going too far only because the underlying drive is a good one that we need.

The Jewish and Christian Bible warns:
“Be not among winebibbers, among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)
Yet the same Bible elsewhere also says:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. For God has long ago approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
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This is part 3 of "The Seven Deadlies"
Next: Part 4: "'Healthy Appetite'?"
Previous: Part 2: "Let's Start with Gluttony"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"