Somewhere Connie Mariano is grinning. If she's not, she should be.
Mariano, of course, is the former White House physician whom New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called "another hack who wants five minutes on TV" when she voiced concerns about his weight to CNN. However, his recent disclosure that he underwent lap band surgery in February - notably, the same month that he lashed out at Mariano - was a public atonement of sorts, an acknowledgement that his claim to be "remarkably healthy" is simply inconsistent with medical reality. In fact, virtually every trustworthy source in health care identifies excessive weight as a risk factor for major illnesses and chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Throughout his years in public office, Christie has candidly commented on, and even lampooned, his weight. But now that he has taken a serious, clinical step to trim down, he should be more transparent. In fact, the secrecy that surrounded his weight loss surgery was wrong.
Too many Americans are overweight, and obesity is a major problem. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than two-thirds of adults, nearly 69 percent, are overweight and more than 35 percent are obese. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control estimate that nearly 24 percent of adults in the Garden State are medically obese.
And the crisis is not limited to adults. More than 17 percent of New Jersey children between the ages of 2 and 5 are considered obese.
Christie could use his distinctive frankness to help New Jersey residents and, perhaps, the nation. He has an opportunity to abandon the defensive and satirical responses that have characterized his previous reactions to public attention about his weight. His telling Mariano to "shut up" communicated bravado and eating a doughnut with David Letterman garnered laughs, but both reactions unfortunately reinforced misguided thinking. Namely, that weight concerns should be handled privately and that obesity simply results from eating too many sweets.
Christie can use his national platform to encourage openness about a challenge that affects so many. Doing so may push others to seek professional help and community support in reaching their weight-loss goals. Safe and effective strides toward weight reduction depend on setting realistic goals, crafting a sensible plan of action and receiving ongoing encouragement from one's family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. And raising awareness about lesser-known causes of obesity, such as lack of sleep and smoking during pregnancy, may help correct simplistic theories that begin and end with bad eating habits. It is particularly important to create a supportive climate for men as weight loss initiatives tend to be more socially accepted among women.
He can also use his office to promote healthy living options, such as exercise release time offered by employers and better access to healthy nutritional options. We understand the link between inactivity and food choices to weight gain, but too few politicians use existing tools, such as green space and tax incentives, to situate walking trails and parks near major employment centers or to draw well-stocked grocery stores to all corners of a state.
And Christie should make health education from grade school through high school a centerpiece of his educational agenda. Healthy weight maintenance is a lifelong pursuit that must begin during childhood. Young people should have daily recess time as well as mandatory physical education and health classes. Schools are essential in exposing children to information about nutrition and preventive health care and in introducing them to good forms of physical activity. We need a determined voice such as Christie's to argue for protecting a portion of the school day for healthy living initiatives.
Obesity is not a static end. It is a fixable diagnosis. If Christie seizes this moment to implement broad-based initiatives while shedding his own extra pounds, he may prove to be a diminishing leader of whom we can all be proud.
Carla R. Monroe, associate editor of Intercultural Education, writes about educational issues.