"Poverty is conducive to obesity," said Brawley. "I think Dr. Benjamin may understand the root causes and effectively address the problems more than skinny people."
Dr. Susan Love, president of the eponymous research foundation, said Benjamin was attacked because she was a woman, reminding that the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop was "no string bean."
"Now I do suspect some of the questioning is a sexist thing in that as a society we still promote the thin, trim female -- a fact that might be a contributor to our problems with eating disorders," said Connie Diekman, a registered nurse and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Patients also came to her defense.
"Doctors are human, too," said Chris Hill, a 51-year-old "overweight" pharmacist from El Paso, Texas. "They get sick, smoke, overeat and die like everyone else. Everyone does not have to look like a TV anchor in order to do a good job etc. Being healthy and tiny are not the same things. Are you saying overweight people can't or shouldn't be professionals?"
"My primary care doctor was overweight and was always telling me I needed to lose a few pounds," said Adeeba Deterville, a 47-year-old consultant from Oakland, Calif.
"I did feel it was odd for her to be advising me, when she needed to do it herself. However, I also found some comfort in knowing that she was struggling too and that helped me feel "not preached to. I knew she could relate."
Dr. Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Association, said he was "incredulous" at the criticism.
"For the surgeon general to fulfill her responsibility goes beyond anything such as a physical metric," he told ABCNews.com. "What we need are health care leaders who are qualified, passionate, results-oriented and part of a team for the great good. She is all that."