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Obesity debate rages on talk of Christie White House bid

Oct 2, 2011, 5:52 p.m.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during tenth anniversary ceremonies at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York, September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Noah K. Murray/Pool

By Bill Berkrot

(Reuters) - Speculation that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will enter the presidential race has led to a feverish debate about the possibility of having the fattest man in the White House since the corpulent William Howard Taft squeezed behind the big desk in the Oval Office.

Of course Taft, who reportedly weighed nearly 340 pounds during his presidency, ran for the highest office in 1908 when there wasn't the same focus on image and no need to worry about how a candidate looked on television.

Christie, who had ruled it out for months has been reconsidering whether to join the race for the Republican nomination in the past week, according to news reports.

He talks about his battle to lose weight and sometimes jokes about his size - he once exaggerated that he was 550 pounds. But he has not disclosed his actual weight.

That hasn't stopped an onslaught from television comedians and newspaper columnists in the past week.

Late-night talk-show host David Letterman's list of ten "ways the country would be different if Chris Christie was President" last Tuesday were all based on weight and food, including that the Cabinet would have a Secretary of Cake and the U.S. would invade pancake chain IHOP rather than Iraq.

But the jokes are no laughing matter to many.

The idea that poking such fun at Christie's weight is somehow acceptable in a way that it would not be if the jokes involved a disability or someone's ethnicity, adds to concerns about discrimination faced by the overweight.

In the New York Times on Sunday, columnist Frank Bruni attacked those who would dismiss Christie as a viable candidate because of his weight.

"Downgrade Christie for his truculent style. Reject him for his limited experience. But don't dwell on his heft. Girth doesn't equal character," wrote the former restaurant critic, who argued he would prefer "a big fat president" to a vain one who was always getting a make-up touch up.

With more than a third of Americans classified as obese, the topic is no laughing matter given the serious health issues associated with the condition, such as diabetes, heart disease and sleeping and breathing problems.

Any Christie presidential run will inevitably raise serious concerns about whether his heft could adversely affect his health and therefore his ability to serve as president.

"In general, the higher the body mass index the more likely a person is going to have significant obesity related conditions. And the longer you have the obesity, you have the cumulative effect on the organs," said Dr. Philip Schauer, director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, the nation's top-rated cardiac care hospital.

Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure of a person's weight related to their height. The 49-year-old Christie is about 5-foot-11.

FIT AND FAT?

"The human body was just not built to handle an extra 100, 150 pounds," Schauer said.

However, Schauer cautioned that not all obese patients are the same and genetics can play as big a role as body mass in whether someone suffers heart problems or other illnesses.

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