Sept. 29, 2011— -- First the comedians, now the critics are weighing in on Chris Christie's obesity and possible health implications.
The New Jersey governor has yet to enter the presidential race, despite mounting pressure from Republican supporters. But experts say his physique could dissuade voters looking for a committed, energetic leader.
"In this era of exercise, we impute moral failings to people who don't rein in their weight," David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York, told ABC News' Joel Siegel. "Those prejudices are just intensified for people who seek elected office."
Obesity can signal health problems. The extra pounds raise the risk of chronic, debilitating and even life-threatening medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
But with one in three Americans defined as obese -- a share expected to rise in the coming years -- many experts believe weight shouldn't factor into a person's professional opportunities.
"Many obese [people] have very productive personal and business lives," said Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the University of Queensland School of Medicine's John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans. "So this also should not be an exclusion but should be factored into the thought process when deciding on a presidential candidate."
Whether voters would care about Christie's weight, experts say, the governor should try to trim down for his own sake.
"Left unaddressed, his weight may take years from his life. But it's even more likely to take life from his years," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
Obesity can take its toll on a person's energy levels, an observation Christie discussed in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer earlier this year.
"OK, I have to get healthier and this job has really forced me because it's such a draining job from the energy perspective," he said.
Christie was rushed to the hospital in July after complaining of breathing problems and lightheadedness. Worried about his heart, doctors performed blood tests, an electrocardiogram and a chest X-ray. Ultimately, the ordeal was blamed on a bout of asthma.
Christie is not the first politician to be criticized for health problems. Rep. Michele Bachmann's migraines raised questions this summer about her ability to handle the pressures of the presidency. And in the 2008 race, Barack Obama's smoking habit, Joe Biden's aneurysm and John McCain's melanoma were scrutinized.
"I suppose it should receive as much attention as President Obama's smoking did," Keith Ayoob, director of the Rose R. Kennedy Center Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said of Christie's weight. "The smoking is actually an even greater health risk."
Presidential candidates are usually forthcoming about their medical history, in part because of public pressure. But some, including once vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney, have downplayed health concerns until unexpected events landed them in the spotlight.
After the asthma scare, Christie insisted his overall health is good.
"Despite the well chronicled issues with my weight, I've been relatively healthy by all objective indicators," he said.
U.S. Obesity Rates Continue to Climb
There's no drug approved to treat obesity. But some diets combined with exercise programs have proven to be effective. And for people with no success dieting, bariatric surgery can help by limiting food consumption and calorie absorption.
"I think it's important that the issue be approached similarly to any other medical condition," said Dr. Mitchell Roslin, an obesity surgeon at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Mr. Christie's obesity can be treated far more effectively than if John McCain had a recurrence of his melanoma."
If he decides to run, Christie might have to fend off fat jabs from competitors. In 2009, incumbent New Jersey Gov. Jon Carzine said Christie "threw his weight around," in campaign ads that showed the governor at his heaviest.
"What we need to realize is that there should be no discrimination based on size and body shape," Roslin said, adding that obesity seems to be the last bastion of accepted prejudice. "We should be concerned with Mr. Christie's policies and ability to stimulate our depressed economy."
Christie would not be the first fat man to fill the role. William Howard Taft, the county's 27th president, was rumored to weigh more than 300 pounds.
Roslin said he thinks Christie's running could help dispel myths about obesity.
"It is not a matter of choice, or lack of will power," Roslin said. "Hopefully, increased awareness will help stimulate more effective treatment and universal coverage for obesity."