Remembering a Pioneer in Obesity Research: Dr. Albert J. Stunkard

I don’t usually pay much attention to obituaries, but one in the NYT yesterday (21 July 2014) caught my eye.  The obit was entitled: “Dr. Albert J. Stunkard,  destigmatizer of fat, dies at 92,” and was written by Paul Vitello.  When Dr. Stunkard first started studying obesity in the 1950s, the problem was thought to be an important one, with about 6% of the U.S. population obese.  Of course, things have ballooned (literally and figuratively) out of control; the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. is now about 35%.

What did Dr. Stunkard’s work teach us?

As summarized nicely in the obit, Dr. Stunkard was truly a pioneer in the field, first identifying binge eating as a medical disorder and then  showing  the link between obesity and socioeconomic factors.  In my view, his most important work was on the genetics of obesity.  He made good use of a large medical database in Denmark to show that adults adopted at birth, end up with body weights much more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents.  He next looked at identical twins, some adopted and some not.  He found that as adults, the twin BMIs were nearly identical, whether they were adopted or not.  Thus, he established the major role genetics plays in the development of obesity.  In his later work, he wrote extensively about the unfair social stigmatization suffered by obese individuals and offered approaches to countering the strong genetic role in the development of obesity (including gastric by-pass surgery).  We would all do well to remember what Dr. Stunkard’s work has taught us as we health professionals try to help our patients wrestle with obesity, whether trying to prevent it or treat it.

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