The eating disorder and obesity fields lost a pioneer in research, with the passing of Dr. Albert J. Stunkard, whose death was reported July 20 in The New York Times. Along with many other accomplishments, Dr. Stunkard was the first to identify binge eating disorder as a medical issue, to link socioeconomic predictors to obesity, and to provide evidence for a genetic basis to obesity.
In the 1950s and '60s when Stunkard started this line of research, the prevailing notion in the medical community was still that obesity was an issue of self-control or willpower, laying the blame squarely on individuals who were overweight or obese. This notion has not completely changed in the 50-year interim, but Stunkard helped provide the groundwork research that is starting to shift beliefs and prejudices about obesity.
One of Stunkard's landmark studies, based on a cohort of 540 Danish adults who were adopted at birth, showed that the weight of the adopted children tracked closely with the weight of their biological parents and barely corresponded to the weight of their adoptive parents. This clearly showed that nature rather than nurture held greater influence over weight and that therefore, there must be a strong genetic component to obesity.
His second most well-known study involved twins to prove the point that the first adoptive study had suggested. From tracking the weight of twins - some of whom were adopted and some not - they found that regardless of whether twins were raised in the same environment or apart, their body mass index was nearly identical. This provides sound evidence for the genetic basis of weight, since identical twins share almost all of their genes, whereas children only share about half of their genes with their parents.
This focus on the biological aspect of weight also allowed Stunkard to be able to address the stigma surrounding weight and the shaming of those who were overweight or obese. He found that stigma towards the overweight or obese was the "last acceptable form of prejudice." A 1960s survey of children showed that, when asked to pick a friend, the overweight child was always picked last, even after a child with a disability.
Dr. Marlene Schwartz, Director for the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, stated that: "In the family tree of our work, Dr. Stunkard would be at the very top." Dr. Stunkard certainly made key contributions to the field and has helped ensure that obesity begin to be thought of through a different lens. He will be missed, but hopefully his work will continue on in the many researchers he has inspired.