National Consumers League

Is it good or bad that obesity is now classified as a disease?

zoeBy Zoe Stahl, Food and Labor Policy Intern
Last month, the American Medical Association (AMA) designated obesity a disease.  With this decision, 78 million adults and 12 million children have suddenly been categorized as having a disease.   And with this decision has come much debate: is this in fact a step forward? To provide a better understanding of the implications, here’s a list of pros and cons of AMA’s policy change:
Pros: Many wrongly consider the obese to be lazy and indulgent. Classifying obesity as a disease may help undermine these negative stereotypes by reminding the public that obesity is a chronic disease caused by a number of factors, including one’s genes and the environment.
  • Medical schools, overwhelmed by all the material they need to cover, often neglect teaching obesity prevention. AMA’s decision may spur the addition of nutrition-focused classes to schools’ curriculum, helping to enhance the ability of future doctors to address obesity.
  • This new policy may also encourage doctors to provide much-needed counseling and targeted interventions to those struggling with their weight. Prevention and intervention are especially important given that obesity correlates with certain health issues, such as hypertension, sleep apnea, heart attack, stroke and certain cancers.
  • As a society, we often use weight as a proxy for health. However, many studies have shown that being thin does not necessarily mean being healthier. While higher weights can lead to increased risk of type 2 diabetes,  heavier women are all less likely to develop osteoporosis; this is the perfect illustration that thinner is not always better. Classifying obesity as a disease may only further our conflation of weight and health—and all the negatives that come with that falsehood like fat discrimination and an overemphasis on calorie reduction.
  • Body Mass Index (BMI), which is often used to measure and diagnose obesity, is calculated by dividing body mass by the square of height, but is  an imperfect way to measure and diagnose obesity. Though seemingly accurate, BMI fails to accurately detect obesity. An individual who is fit and muscular can have a high BMI, while an individual who is low in weight and high in body fat could be considered normal weight. This inaccurate system can lead to misdiagnosis, causing doctors to overemphasize weight at the expense of overall health.
  • Finally, some fear that this new classification will spur a new round of aggressive anti-obesity measures by the government, such as a “fat tax” on highly saturated foods. Many are concerned that the government will become more paternalistic, limiting and infringing on their personal liberty.
If some of this seems contradictory, it is. The science is, too. Nonetheless, the recent classification of obesity as a disease is an important one. By bringing attention to what many consider a public health issue, the AMA has reminded the general public of the need for continued research, efforts and education.