Like Giving a Heroin Addict Drugs

During the current Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, we have been examining the role of the media in creating awareness, and the reasons why that can be a double-edged sword.

Back when Barry Austin was still alive, Britain’s former heaviest man (770 pounds) talked with a journalist about his life as a media darling, and the perks that came with it. He loved not only the room service in hotels but the praise and attention. Comparing the combination of endless free food and star-worship to heroin, he characterized himself as an addict.

Later, Dr. Ellie Connon described Austin as super-obese, not meaning “super” in a good way. She had been urging him to get medical help, and he had responded by dragging his feet. Connon wrote,

Barry lives within 15 miles of Heartlands Hospital, which has a £10 million new weight-management clinic, pulling in the best dietary, psychological, medical and surgical treatment — but Barry seems almost amazed that such services exist. While complaining that he has been abandoned by doctors, Barry admits he hasn’t sought help. Instead of medical support, he has a film crew. There are TV commissions in the pipeline, but no GP appointments.

A short life but a merry one

Who knows why any individual chooses to live in a self-destructive way? But as Dr. Connon mentions, the career of a professional morbidly obese person affects others, too, like family members, friends, and sweethearts. In the widening circle, there are other societal impacts, like the expense incurred by agencies obligated to buy oversized, heavily reinforced gurneys, hospital beds, and ambulances for hefty patients.

Journalist Nick Harding wrote a piece called, “Unhealthy appetite: Is ‘Fatsploitation’ fuelling the obesity crisis?,” and Austin was certainly one of the people he had in mind.

Another was Daniel Lambert, and speaking of heavy-duty vehicles, that fellow used to travel around England in a specially reinforced carriage. His weight was said to be 52 stone (a.k.a. 728 pounds) and according to portraits by contemporary artists, he was round as a bowling ball. A one-man freak show, he charged the locals a fee to look at him — and probably the painters, too.

The human body, says Harding, was specifically designed to seek out and consume food with high caloric value and ease of access, and to store it internally, in anticipation of hard times. Speaking of the present day, he says, “There has never been a more opportune time to store fat.” Similarly, there has never been a more opportune time to exploit obesity. He quotes an anonymous entertainment executive who cites the public’s demand for “the bizarre and the extreme.”

One theory is that readers and viewers like to wallow in the lives of more messed-up people because it makes them feel fortunate in comparison. In other words, it’s all about good old-fashioned schadenfreude, delight in others’ misfortune. This informant also told the reporter, “If you put a web cam in the world’s fattest man’s bedroom, people would watch.” To return to the theme of awareness, Harding says:

[F]rom the TV companies to magazine publishers and, ultimately, the consumers queuing up to take a guilty peek at the latest sideshow curiosity, we are all culpable to some extent for the way obesity is represented.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Bitter remorse of Britain’s fattest man,”, 12/07/13
Source: “Unhealthy appetite: Is ‘Fatsploitation’ fuelling the obesity crisis?,”, 10/23/11
Image by Phillip Roberts/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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