Scientific Society: Obesity should be classified as disease

The American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease last summer. The decision was in opposition to a study of the issue by the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health. Due to flaws with the Body Mass Indexing system used to characterize people as obese, the council recommended against designating obesity a disease. They voiced concerns about those with metabolic problems who are not classified as obese by the BMI and those who are obese but seem healthy. However, an increasing number of studies have shown the healthy obese as a societal misconception. The AMA made the progressive and correct choice, despite some critics’ claims to the opposite.

Recent studies by Crystal L. Hoyt and Jeni L. Burnette have examined the psychological effects reclassification may have. They found that those who know obesity is a disease reported a higher body satisfaction and felt that attempting to lose weight was futile. These participants also chose to eat higher-calorie foods. But it is important to remember that these studies only looked at the short-term, psychological effects on obese people of reading an informative article.

The social stigma surrounding obesity implies that obese people lack self control and discipline. Hoyt and Burnette thought their results showed that the AMA’s decision encouraged the stigma — because participants felt better, or less responsible, about themselves, they were less likely to make healthy choices. But this is a stigma that should be changed, not accepted as motivation for the obese to lose weight. Characterizing obesity as a disease works to fight this psychologically damaging stigma.

It is critical that obesity continues to be considered a disease within the medical community. Obesity is a precursor to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but has negative health effects of its own. The primary effects are joint damage and a chronic state of inflammation, the latter of which can contribute to hormone imbalances and metabolic syndrome.  These are serious conditions and need to be treated accordingly. Health care professionals should be educated early on about the severe risks of obesity in order to better advise their patients who are headed down that path. If being overweight is seen as developing a disease, those affected by it will take more serious measures.

Classifying obesity as a disease is an important step in quelling the epidemic. The severe and immediate consequences of chronic obesity need to be constantly monitored and discussed by those in the health care industry. Although the decision’s benefits are hard to see in the short term, labeling obesity as a disease will help the medical community better fight and prevent the problem.

In response to Christina Coleburn’s “Obesity should not be classified as a disease.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 4 print edition. Tess Woosley is a staff columnist. Scientific Society is published every Tuesday. Email her at [email protected]

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