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Not New News, But Still Unbelievable: Too Fat To Work?

November 2, 2011

Meet the Chawners

This is the Chawner family, of Lancashire, England. In 2009, the media blew up with allegations that “they live exclusively on $26,000 of yearly, tax-free medical benefits” due to health complications and discrimination due to their morbid obesity. Articles deemed them “the free-loading family” or “the real telly-tubbies” when detailing their lives:

With a combined weight of 1,160 pounds, they are all considered extremely obese, with myriad related health problems.

…Philip Chawner, 53, a former truck driver, claimed that his diabetes was causing him to fall asleep behind the wheel. His wife, Audrey, 57, volunteered at a disabled children’s clinic but her epilepsy prevents her from leaving home.

They live in a two-bedroom, government-sponsored apartment that costs $50 a week. A typical diet included bacon sandwiches, known as “bacon butties,” and “microwave pies.” A typical day involved turning on the television in the morning. Husband and wife weigh 336 pounds each. Emma weighs 238 pounds.

Now, I’ve posted before about how obesity is largely seen as choice, not a disease. As a physical malaise, not a manifestation of psychological and emotional sickness. More than 2 months ago, I wrote about a man who eats 33,000 calories a day: “It is commonly accepted that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are diseases, and I just don’t see how you can argue that these “super morbidly obese” people are not suffering from diseased mindsets and diseased bodies.” And I continue to stand by this with the story of the Chawners: these people need help and education to deal with a sickness and addiction that is spiraling out of control and deeply impacting their lives. The media paints them as “lazy” slobs who watch TV all day, with descriptions such as “The Chawners, haven’t worked in 11 years, claim their weight is a hereditary condition and the money they receive is insufficient to live on. Mr Chawner said: ‘What we get barely covers the bills and puts food on the table. It’s not our fault we can’t work. We deserve more'” while simultaneously describing the litany of health problems that are severely affecting their lives. Not to mention the constant abuse and discrimination that they deal with from other people as a result of their weight:

Did these people choose to live their lives this way–as super morbidly obese people who are in constant pain, physically and emotionally, as a direct result from the weight that is slowly killing them every single day? Right now, we don’t have the science to back it up and…I wonder if it even matters. I happen to think that this is indisputably a diseased physical and mental condition. But choice or no choice, whatever your opinion is, the indisputable fact is that there is very little in place in society to prevent this from happening–to give people necessary education and resources and tools to live healthy lives, instead of constantly scrambling to make up for the damage that our overprocessed, underactive lifestyles result in. The Chawners later participated in a show entitled “Big Fat Challenge” and, with proper coaching and counseling, all began to “revolutionize their lifestyle through a diet and exercise regime” and lose significant amounts of weight.

This is all especially fascinating given a very recent article that I was published in the New York Times: “Ruling Offers Hope To Eating Disorder Sufferers.” I’ll allow the article to explain:

Through claims and court cases, those with severe cases of anorexia or bulimia are fighting insurers to pay for stays in residential treatment centers, arguing that the centers offer around-the-clock monitoring so that patients do not forgo eating or purge their meals.

The insurers consider residential treatments not only costly — sometimes reaching more than $1,000 a day — but unproven and more akin to education than to medicine…

The laws generally require that coverage for mental and behavioral disorders be equivalent to that for physical ailments like diabetes or a broken bone.

Did you catch the sentence where insurers consider residential treatments “unproven and more akin to education than to medicine”? So, basically, health education is worthless and we should all just take a pill (which insurance will apparently cover) to fix our problems? What utter bull. Without education and treatment, how is the root of any problem ever to be dealt with, how is sustainable change ever supposed to be made? The article follows a 37 year old who “lost her job and insurance and is now on disability while studying social work in graduate school” after receiving in-depth treatment for her eating disorder, and she hopes that “the court decision would show people that eating disorders were not just matters of weight and appearance, but serious diseases. “I just feel like this ruling gives a little more legitimacy to the reality of what this illness is,” she said.””

This is fascinating on so many levels–that the courts are ruling on the side of patients suffering from this disease so that they can have assistance in getting the help they so desperately need, and that the disease itself is finally being recognized outright for what it is, a serious mental and physical condition that deeply impacts individuals and those around them.

An estimated 11 million Americans, mostly young women, suffer from eating disorders, the most serious being anorexia nervosa, in which people starve themselves, and bulimia nervosa, in which they engage in binge eating followed by purging. These disorders, particularly anorexia, have the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Some insurers say that there is no treatment for physical illnesses that is equivalent to residential treatment for mental illnesses, and therefore residential treatment does not have to be paid for under parity laws. “Some medically necessary treatments for severe mental illness have no analog in treatments for physical illnesses.”

Of course insurers are already demanding a rehearing on this ruling, but this is certainly a victory of hope for those who have been struggling with diseases that destroy lives and families, and crush dreams and spirits. I have to wonder though if someday there will be a similar story surrounding a family like the Chawners–one that suffers with addiction and morbid obesity, and one where there is legal help and education to deal with the physical and psychological factors and ramifications, and a societal recognition of this disease that is also seriously impacting and ruining lives, instead of the vitriolic hatred and discrimination that these people face?

(Image courtesy of The Daily Mail…sorry that “Fitness Frenzy” week has still not begun, but it’s a-coming!)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. shay4strength permalink
    November 2, 2011 6:18 pm

    This is so sad, yet america is full of this. I read an article about a woman being kicked out of New Zealand because she was to over-weight!

    People need to understand here that this isn’t just about vanity…this is about health! Cases like this people feel like they are too far gone, but its NEVER too late!

    Very eye opening…i hope this is not the fate of our world. Ever seen the movie Wall-e? Scary.

  2. Joe permalink
    November 2, 2011 8:33 pm

    very interesting. another facet of health and lifestyle that we don’t know all that much about but are very willing to offer unfounded opinions on. thanks for the post hangryhippo!

  3. November 3, 2011 10:11 am

    I’m not a scientist or a statistician, but I will say that, while I’ve never seen a family of anorexics, I frequently see families where every member from toddler to teen to grandparents, is overweight/obese…which leads me to believe that there are *some* families where there *may* be a genetic component to obesity. However, I absolutely believe that there is an eating disorder component to *most* overweight people that may be psychological (e.g., emotional eating) OR physical (insulin resistance that causes sugar/carb cravings, binges, blood sugar imbalance, fat storage, for example). There ARE some (rare) medically recognized conditions that cause compulsive overeating (Prader-Willi syndrome is one)…but if i may be so blunt, at a glance, this family featured in the story does not appear to be in that situation.


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