By Melinda J. Watman
When the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease last year, most of us — advocates who work to help those with obesity — were thrilled.
We saw the new definition’s potential to change how medical professionals regard people with obesity, increase society’s focus on obesity, push insurance companies to cover obesity treatments, reduce social stigma and moderate the anxiety and depression often afflicting those with obesity.
Already, we see some of those hopes being realized. Just last week, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management issued a ruling that health insurers who cover federal employees may no longer exclude coverage of weight loss drugs on the basis that obesity is a “lifestyle” condition or that obesity treatment is “cosmetic.” This is one more significant step in the recognition and treatment of obesity as a disease.
But nothing is that simple or easy.
The high-fiving was barely over when the first study came out saying “not so fast.” It would seem, according to an article published in the New York Times, no good deed goes unpunished. The article presented a summary of a research paper titled “‘Obesity Is a Disease’: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of this Public-Health Message.”
The three authors concluded that labeling obesity a disease led their subjects to want to eat more, eat worse and care less about their weight. They suggested that labeling obesity a disease leads to the belief that it is futile to try to manage one’s weight.
Whether one agrees with the study’s findings and conclusions or not, the underlying question of whether obesity should be accepted as a disease is the critical point. The authors certainly question its validity based on the findings that their subjects suffered an “undermining of beneficial self-regulatory processes.”
What is interesting is that if it were any other chronic illness with comparable results, we would not be questioning whether the illness should be classified as a disease. Rather, we would be trying to find better ways to engage, educate, support and treat those patients as we continued to work on new therapeutics to manage the disease.
As is often the case with obesity, it would appear this line of thinking and research has the potential to further marginalize the problem and those affected by it. This is completely counter to what the AMA policy strives for – the same medically accepted framework to diagnose, treat and support patients as exists with any other chronic illness. Continue reading