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New York Times Ethicist Counsels Reader To Ignore Obesity

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Poetic Justice is an advice column that offers better advice to submissions at other publications whose advice has failed the reader.

The Ethicist columnist for the New York Times counseled a reader anxious about a close friend’s weight to ignore the problem altogether.

Last week, a reader wrote to the paper’s appointed “ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, to seek advice on how to approach a friend of half a century over their dangerously deteriorating health. Here’s what they wrote:

My friend of 50 years has recently become morbidly obese. She now must be 100-plus pounds overweight on a very small frame. She has great difficulty breathing, and her legs are bowed out from being crushed under her weight. She can no longer perform simple household tasks like cleaning.

I love my friend, and have tried several times to speak to her gently about her worsening condition. But to no avail. She says she cannot afford the new diet-drug-by-injection everyone is using; she has given up trying to lose the weight any other way.

Food is her drug. It is clear she lives for it as an addict would. She steadfastly refuses to talk to me or her family about it. She apparently skirts around the issue when talking to her primary-care provider, and nothing ever changes: Her weight continues to go up.

I have thought about approaching her children about this. But if that doesn’t work, and the children tell my friend I tried to intervene, I am sure that would be the end of our friendship. She has told me, “Don’t talk to me about this.” What, if anything, can I do to help her? I am watching her kill herself slowly. — Name Withheld.

Appiah recommended the reader respect her friend’s wishes to steer clear of the subject.

“Unlike her primary-care provider, you have no special knowledge of complex conditions. (One such complexity: the vicious cycle that can arise between depression and obesity.)” Appiah wrote. “You may not be the right person to make a difference here. She has explicitly asked you not to raise the issue with her. As someone who cares about her, you obviously have reason to want her to get healthier. But you can’t insist on it.”

“I wish she’d listen to you,” the columnist added. “But as her friend, you also have to listen to her — and take notice of the boundaries she has set.”

But would Appiah also offer the same advice to the friend of a cocaine addict?

Excess weight is no doubt an emotional issue, hence why there’s a growing movement underway to destigmatize obesity as an effort to be “body positive.” While often promoted with good intentions, there’s a point wherein such positivity becomes incredibly toxic.

Sugar, which is laced in nearly everything at the modern American supermarket, is a toxic substance that, when consumed in high levels, has been found more rewarding than cocaine. The reader even conceded of their friend, “food is her drug,” adding it’s “clear she lives for it as an addict would.”

“I am watching her kill herself slowly,” the reader noted, just as a drug addict would.

A study published in the journal Population Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder in February found obesity raises the risk of early mortality by as much as 90 percent. The danger is real. Obesity also carries with it a plethora of life-long complications ranging from type 2 diabetes and hypertension to “many types of cancer.”

If the reader has really been friends with the person whom she wrote about for 50 years, it’s worth the effort to keep trying. Even if, God willing, death were successfully delayed a few decades, no one wants to live like Brendan Fraser’s character in “The Whale.”

[READ: For The Sake Of Our Health, Keep The ‘Body Positivity’ Movement Away From ‘The Whale’]

It’s neither ethical nor compassionate to give up on friends struggling with drug addiction.


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