Christina’s Case: Obesity should not be classified as disease

Christina Coleburn, Deputy Opinion Editor

University of Richmond professors Crystal L. Hoyt and Jeni L. Burnette discussed whether the American Medical Association was correct in categorizing obesity as a disease in a Feb. 23 New York Times article. Although the June 2013 decision has no legal authority, significant ramifications still exist for obesity treatment now that the nation’s largest physician group has given the health problem this classification. While proponents of the recognition maintain that it will make insurers and physicians more likely to emphasize treatment for the rising issue, detractors find fault in this rationale. Skeptics argue that obesity is not necessarily a disease in itself, but rather a risk factor for other health conditions.

The decision and its ensuing backlash have reignited the conversation about the dangers of overreaching medical classification. According to recent estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents within the last three decades, leading some researchers to predict that obese children today will live shorter lives than their parents. The CDC furthermore estimated that the annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008, and the medical cost of obese Americans was $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

While few would disagree that obesity constitutes a pressing public health epidemic that certainly necessitates attention from physicians and insurers, classifying obesity as a disease is likely to cause more problems than it solves. By categorizing over one-third of adult Americans as having a disease that can largely be alleviated by weight management, the American Medical Association has created a superfluous stigma around obesity. Although some individuals may require prescription drugs to help them lose weight, the decision could create an unnecessary reliance on medications that can counteract basic lifestyle changes, including regular exercise and a healthy diet.

In the study that prompted their editorial, Hoyt and Burnette came upon a striking yet anticipated conclusion. While labeling obesity as a disease enhanced body satisfaction among obese participants, the designation also made weight management efforts seem futile and undermined concern for health-focused dieting. Although it is important for individuals to feel at peace with their physiques, a fine line exists between encouraging positive body image and enabling a practice that can reap devastating health consequences. To counter this epidemic, the American Medical Association should categorize obesity as a dangerous condition, not a full-fledged disease.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 24 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a deputy opinion editor. Christina’s Case is published every Monday. Email her at [email protected].