'Forgive Me, Doctor, for I Have Sinned'

Why do we equate obesity with immorality?

By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Obesity: serious disease or moral failure?

The official line is that obesity is a disease that can be treated with a variety of interventions. But unofficially, Americans suffer from a deeply ingrained cultural bias against people who are obese.

Want examples? Consider the 1994 People magazine cover dishing the dirt on "Diet winners and sinners of the year."

Or how about this nugget from the Food Network web site: a recipe for "Ghiradelli Sinful Chocolate Truffles." On a recent visit, the recipe shared a page with an advertisement for the South Beach diet.

Or how about the survey published last year in the journal Obesity Research that looked at primary care doctors' attitudes about obesity and found that "more than 50% of physicians viewed obese patients as awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant?"

"We live in a society that largely scorns obesity and overvalues thinness," says Gary D. Foster, PhD, who led the survey team and is a clinical director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. He was speaking at a recent Harvard School of Public Health symposium on the science of obesity, presented at the Harvard Medical School campus in Boston.

"People often say things like 'I cheated today on my diet'," Foster says. "What does that mean, cheated? How would you feel if your adolescent son or daughter came home and said they got caught cheating on a test, or worse yet your spouse came home and said 'I got caught cheating at work today?' How did a bag of M&Ms ever get equated with something like cheating?"