Is obesity a disease?
The American Medical Association announced that it was and that it requires a range of medical interventions to advance treatment and prevention.
In coming to this decision AMA concluded that “recognising obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans”. And with that, a third of the US population became diseased overnight.
It is hoped that the classification of obesity as a disease will change how doctors prescribe treatment and foster the development of new therapies, which in turn will provide the knowledge and tools needed to curb the levels of obesity in the future. AMA anticipates that better diagnostic tests and treatment procedures will be established and that further research and development in the areas of treatment and prevention will be encouraged. Ensuring health professionals in the US receive adequate training about obesity, especially in medical school, is also an expectation.
Not all the obesity-related professional communities agree with this classification. In fact a committee of experts recommended against classifying obesity as a disease. There are several arguments against labelling obesity as a disease including:
- the classification of obesity largely relies upon Body Mass Index, which has been shown to be flawed in certain circumstances
- obese people are not necessarily unhealthy
- calling obesity a disease could further stigmatise people. Research indicates that people discriminate against the overweight in just about every setting, including children as young as 4 years of age
There is also a concern that classifying obesity as a disability removes an element of personal responsibility.
Now that obesity has been classified as a disease in the US, the next question is what will happen as a result of this classification. Will this lead to changes in medical education, research, prevention strategies and so on? Obesity is an incredibly complicated and difficult to treat problem, which responds best to a chronic disease management approach. Hopefully this categorisation will benefit individuals who struggle with this.
In the UK, obesity is viewed as a lifestyle problem and not a disease. This can lead to a lack of qualified support in the area, as well as a lack of evidence-based public health strategies. Healthcare professionals may also receive inadequate training, with many lacking the basic skills needed to deal with obesity-related issues. All of these issues will contribute towards negative consequences and experiences for patients.
Obesity results in a range of serious health problems, yet many of us continue to focus on its cosmetic consequences rather than its risks to health. With a quarter of adults obese, costing the taxpayer £5bn a year, might redefining obesity in the UK mean we take it more seriously?
The statement from the American Medical Association can be found at
By Ailbhe Bhreathnach