A Scientific Defense of Santa's Weight

Illustration for article titled A Scientific Defense of Santas Weight

"Santa's behaviour and public image are at odds with contemporary accepted public health messages," argues a British Medical Journal editorial written by Dr. Scrooge and colleagues. Given Santa's tremendous popularity, particularly among children, the authors of the editorial argue the public should become aware of some of the less-than-ideal lifestyle practices advocated by jolly St. Nick.

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The first issue they raise in support of their argument is the pervasive use of Santa Claus to advertise basically everything during the holidays, especially unhealthy food choices such as Coca-Cola products (fair enough). Apparently, it was the Coca-Cola company in the 1930s that developed the contemporary image of Santa Claus that we all recognize today, including his obesity.

And just how obese is Santa?

According to NORAD, Santa Claus weighs in at 260 lbs and has a height of 5'7, putting him at a BMI of 40.7 kg/m2. Then again, we know BMI isn't all that useful anyway.

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The authors worry that Santa's image "promotes a message that obesity is synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality."

The past US surgeon general is quoted as saying: "It is really important that the people kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise. It is absolutely critical."

To make matters worse, an article by ABC news also suggests that Santa Claus impersonators have been putting on the pounds over the years, potentially helping normalize excess body sizes:

"In 1996, the biggest outfit sold at Santasuits.com was 2X, and sales of oversized suits accounted for just 12 percent of business. Today, the company offers a 4X, and plus-sized outfits are a third of their business. An original 1948 pattern owned by Western Staff Services Company in California has expanded inch by inch until it now accommodates a St. Nick who exceeds 300 pounds and a 50-inch beltline."

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Personally, here's where I stand: at a time when discrimination against obese individuals is already rampant, and the large majority of the population is overweight or obese – it may not be a bad idea to have a public character who remains in good spirits despite his expanded waistline.

In fact, as we've pointed out numerous times before, the connection between body weight and health isn't as clear cut as some think. For instance, one can beobese, and yet be metabolically healthy. What seems to set healthy obese from unhealthy obese individuals apart comes down to limited visceral (intra-abdominal) fat accumulation, an earlier onset of obesity (<20 years) and high levels of physical activity. While we can't speculate on the time of Santa's obesity onset or his body composition (it could be mainly innocuous subcutaneous fat that he's carrying around), we do know that he's quite fit and athletic. I mean, what other 260 lb elderly man can climb up and down chimneys all night? He's clearly physically active, nicely personifying the fat and fit phenotype.

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To be fair, Santa's diet may require a bit of an adjustment: ending the whole "milk and cookies" routine is probably a good idea for the health of Santa, or whoever dresses up as one. Santa could also benefit from a standing sleigh to reduce the time he spends sitting and cut his risk of deep vein thrombosis (I'm looking at you Mall Santa!), or park the sleigh a few houses away to increase his number of steps.

What do you think? Does Santa encourage impressionable minds to pack on the pounds, or does he represent one of the few positive cultural representations of obesity?

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This article first appeared on PLOS Blogs and is republished here under Creative Commons license. Image by John Williams under Creative Commons license.

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DISCUSSION

This article perpetuates a few of the fundamental and pervasive misunderstandings about weight and health. First, there's a big difference between saying that obesity is unhealthy and "discriminating against the obese". Secondly, there are studies that show overweight people have better health outcomes than skinny people. However if you actually read the articles instead of linking to blogs, you realize that the authors included dying people and people who are actively dying lose a ton of weight before they die.. Thirdly, while it is true that BMI doesn't discriminate between an obese person who is fat in a bodybuilder, it's pretty easy to know whether you are the fat person for the bodybuilder. Even with the inability to distinguish between these two, we see BMI correlate with poor health outcomes, showing how powerful that correlation is.

When I get home, I will pull up some papers that put this conversation in perspective, rather than some cherry picked papers that misrepresent the evidence chosen by some PhD.

- a PhD who got an MD and understands both worlds.