Obesity is a Disease Now. But, Is this a Victory?

In June, the nation’s largest group of physicians, the American Medical Association, voted to recognize obesity as a disease. The decision could have broad implications for the approximately 90 million Americans who are considered obese.

When you label something as a “disease”, it puts a marker on it as something that requires treatment.  The declaration officially labels obesity as a medical condition, versus being a “disorder” or “condition”.

Is this a victory?  It depends on who you ask.

For patients, the move may mean better insurance coverage and reimbursement for weight-loss programs, medications, counseling and bariatric surgery.  Patients may be in a position to demand better treatments. It could  boost support for obesity-prevention programs in schools, in communities and by employers.

The designation may also help obesity research and funding efforts by drawing more attention to the importance of developing new information and treatments.

On the flip side, does declaring obesity a disease open the door for lawsuits against the food industry, similar to the legal war waged against tobacco companies?  If activists and lawyers seek to demonize the food industry for the obesity epidemic in this country, it could short-circuit efforts to research and produce healthier, lower calorie foods. Instead of paying for more research, food companies would be forced to pay for lawsuits.

While you could argue that anything that increases public awareness and discussion is a good thing, I hope it doesn’t take attention off all the different aspects of obesity that still need to be addressed.

The bottom line is: there is no “quick fix” to the problem of obesity.  What do we do long-term to enact behavioral and cultural changes to address obesity and the many diseases related to it? It still remains to be seen whether officially declaring it a “disease” will be a step in the right direction.

Dr. Mark A. Colquitt is a bariatric surgeon with Foothills Weight Loss Specialists in Maryville, Tennessee.  For more information, please visit www.foothillsweightloss.com.

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