Dr. Albert J. Stunkard, obesity pioneer who also fought the overweight social stigma, dies at 92


Obesity researcher Dr. Albert J. Stunkard, who made significant strides in raising awareness about eating disorders while also engaging in efforts to shed society’s negative notions about overweight individuals, has died of pneumonia at the age of 92 (1).

He was the first person to actually classify “binge eating” as a medical disorder at a time when it was merely considered a “disorder of the will,” saying that while the obese are typically more depressed and less physically active, they are ” . . . no different than non-obese people.” (1)

Furthermore, he also proved that genetics and socioeconomic factors play a role in body weight. (1)

So important were these findings that even today, they are still noted as obesity risk factors; the Mayo Clinic mentions genetics as its first risk factor in a list that also includes socioeconomic status, sleep deprivation, smoking and taking certain medications such as beta-blockers (2).

Dr. Stunkard’s efforts to fight the overweight social stigma and prove much more

Perhaps his most notable studies involving the correlation between body weight and genetics include ones from the 1980s and early 1990s in which he studied adopted twins’ health records, finding that their weight more closely followed that of their biological, rather than adoptive, parents. (1) Dr. Stunkard also engaged in another study that reinforced the findings of the first, this time discovering that twins’ mass body index was virtually identical regardless of whether they had been raised together or apart.

To combat issues surrounding social stigma and overweight people, he published a book in 1980 called, “The Pain of Obesity,” with the hopes of ridding what he called the last acceptable form of prejudice. (1) In his book, he demonstrated this prejudice by honing in on a survey that asked children to review pictures of other children and then pick the ones they’d want to be friends with. The fat child was always chosen last (1).

Making strides to fight body image, become healthier

While a factor behind many serious ailments, carrying even just small amounts of excess weight can be a struggle for many people in today’s appearance-based society. In order to improve body image, several have engaged in awareness efforts that focus on embracing various body types while still engaging in physical activity. For example, Taryn Brumfitt, who founded The Body Image Movement, says that while she chose to no longer stay involved in fitness competitions and obsess over food like she once did, she is still ” . . . a health advocate.” (3). Brumfitt says, “I run, I lift weights, I eat healthily . . . It’s called balance. Health is physical, emotional and spiritual and so much more that is not visible and not always obvious to others.” (3)

Obesity is recognized as a serious health epidemic by many, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC states that over one-third of U.S. adults are obese and that certain health issues such as heart disease and some cancers are preventable obesity-related conditions. (4)

Indeed, many people recognize this and have taken steps to improve their health through weight loss. Lori Miller Nasatka is one such woman. The New Jersey mother recently lost more than 100 pounds through exercise and healthier eating habits, and Justin Willoughby, who set out on a journey in which he ultimately lost over 550 pounds, is another weight loss success story.

More about Dr. Stunkard

A graduate of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons who received numerous awards and funding from notable health organizations such as The National Institutes of Health as well as from the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Stunkard also had a lifelong interest in Buddhism and meditation. (5)

He was a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, where he worked until he was 90 (5).

In 2007, Tom Wadden, director of Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, said that “Dr. Stunkard really is the dean of obesity research.” (5)

Sources for this article include:

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/21/us/21stunkard.html?_r=0

(2) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obesity/basics/risk-factors/CON-20014834

(3) http://bodyimagemovement.com.au/dear-maria-kang-this-is-my-excuse/

(4) http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

(5) http://articles.philly.com/2014-07-15/news/51492188_1_obesity-research-perelman-school-tom-wadden