Obesity, the Disease: The AMA’s Dangerous Cop-Out (June 29, 2013)

To read my June 29 article about the dangerous cultural consequences of the American Medical Association’s decision to classify obesity as a disease, Obesity, the Disease: The AMA’s Dangerous Cop-Out, either click here or keep reading! 


This past week, you’ve likely seen that the American Medical Association (AMA) has now categorized obesity as a disease. We can now officially put having a body mass index (BMI) over 30 (or, roughly, being 30 or more pounds overweight) in the same category as having cancer. This development lead me to ask the following question:

Is laziness driving the AMA to categorize of obesity as a disease?

A disease, as defined by Merriam Webster, is ‘a condition of the living animal or plant body (or of one of its parts) that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.’

Well … that’s a pretty big umbrella. Using that definition alone, everything from a hangnail to a headache falls under the ‘disease’ tent. But we know better. We know that while multiple sclerosis is a disease, a stomachache from too much ice cream is not.

At least I thought we knew better.

It is no secret that as a country (or in this case, as two neighbouring countries, as Canadian statistics are strikingly similar to those of the U.S.) we are plagued with obesity. We are, quite literally, eating ourselves not only to death, but to lifetimes of sickness and skyrocketing healthcare costs.

Is this our collective attempt to close our eyes, plug our ears, and make it all go away?

I think so. And I think it is dangerous.

I know a thing or two about the grey area of defining disease, per se. As a former obese child and now, as someone managing and living with anorexia, I’ve mentally wrestled with the ‘do I have a disease?’ question. According to the AMA, I don’t. But now, suddenly 33% Americans do.

There are, of course, other largely preventable diseases. Sorosis leaps to mind, as does lung cancer and Type 2 diabetes (and I emphasize largely preventable, as I know there are non-drinkers with sorosis and non-smokers with lung cancer.) As far as I know, though, none of these affects one in three Americans (nor do they pose a very real threat to TWO in three Americans.)

Yes, genetics do play a role in both body type and body composition and, yes, there are obese people out there with genuine thyroid problems.

They are not the majority. Not even close.

The majority are those who, for whatever reason, over-consume. The majority are those who do not exercise regularly. The majority are those who consume the 9.2 billion gallons of soda, the 5,608,654,506 pounds of bacon, and the four billion pounds of potato chips that we eat every year.

I feel it important to note that I am not suggesting that all obese people are lazy, or are somehow deficient humans. I, without hesitation, grant that very few things are as tied up with emotions, potential psychological problems, and habitual behaviour as food consumption. That doesn’t change, though, the straightforward facts regarding the ways in which most of the obese become obese.

A lawsuit is currently underway in Buffalo, N.Y. A mother and daughter are suing six manufacturers of high-fructose corn syrup for $5 million, as they apparently have caused the 14-year-old girl’s Type 2 diabetes. The entire family apparently consumed copious amounts of the sugar substitute, and even bragged that ‘ketchup is their vegetable.’

But it is the manufacturer’s fault.

This, I fear, is the principle we see emerging — that of complete denial of responsibility. Recalcitrance. The fault of everyone but the actual consumer, obesity is exploding because Lay’s makes their potato chips too darn tasty. Because Ben and Jerry’s makes their ice cream too creamy. Because video games are easier than riding a bike and now, above all else, because the obese are helpless and suffer from a DISEASE.

But by eliminating personal responsibility from the equation, we’re cheating ourselves out of the only possible chance at recovery we have. If the obese are made to believe that their ‘disease’ is being put upon them, that they are totally helpless in the situation, and that it is largely the fault of society, what chance are we giving them at a healthy life? They have to lose the weight themselves; no one is going to make better choices for them. Personal responsibility is exactly what matters the most.

Which is why we should be focusing on education and, with it, prevention. If a child does not become obese, he or she has a far better chance of staying that way later in life. We need to work in schools and parenting seminars. We need to focus on low-income areas, as when bank accounts plummet, obesity rates rise. We need to teach parents how to teach their children to live healthfully. We need to teach them that it isn’t that hard.

We also need to label our food. Mayor Michael Bloomberg (of New York City) may be seen as a villain by champions of personal freedom, but he has the right idea. We should see, when looking at every menu item or container of prepared food, just how many calories that mac and cheese has. Just how much sugar is in that glass of Mountain Dew. And we should be educated enough to know what that means for our bodies. There is nothing inherently ‘unfree’ about information.

But at the end of the day, no matter how extensive the education campaign or how giant the french fries’ nutritional label, it comes down to personal choices. You can’t mandate that people care. ‘Disease’ moniker or not, if two-thirds of us continue to choose the overindulgence over health, there is very little we can do to effect change.

Something has got to give.

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