Call it semantics, but the news that the American Medical Association, the country's largest physician group, is now calling obesity a disease could have some major implications — for the way obese patients are treated, for the treatment methods that are offered and how they are covered by insurance companies.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” Dr. Patrice Harris, a member of the association’s board, said in a statement. She also suggested that the new definition for obesity would help improve research and treatment for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, just two of the many conditions that are linked to obesity.
The AMA delegates announced their decision at the association's recent annual meeting in Chicago. It's interesting to note that the decision actually went against the recommendations of the association’s Council on Science and Public Health, which had studied the issue over the last year. The council said that obesity should not be considered a disease, primarily because the method currently used to define obesity, namely the body mass index (BMI,) is vague and flawed.
“Given the existing limitations of BMI to diagnose obesity in clinical practice, it is unclear that recognizing obesity as a disease, as opposed to a ‘condition’ or ‘disorder,’ will result in improved health outcomes,” the council wrote.
Still, the council noted that one benefit that might occur from recognizing obesity as a disease would be that it might help to minimize the stigma that currently comes with obesity — the notion that obese people are to blame for their condition by eating too much or exercising too little. Health care providers have long noted that many patients simply are not able to control their weight.
“The suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes,” the resolution said.