Two week ago, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared that obesity is a disease.
They did this even though the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health “said that obesity should not be considered a disease mainly because the measure usually used to define obesity, the body mass index [BMI], is simplistic and flawed.”
Not only is the AMA’s decision problematic because the BMI scale is unreliable, it’s also problematic because obesity in and of itself is not a disease. Though obesity is a condition that can be associated with diseases such as high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease, there are plenty of obese people (myself included) who are healthy.
In fact, according to Abigail C. Saguy, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA, “more than half of ‘overweight’ and almost one third of ‘obese’ people” are healthy.
Not only that, “almost one quarter of ‘normal weight’ people” are unhealthy.”
You may be wondering how someone can be “obese” and still be healthier than some people who are not overweight.
Dr. Saguy says, “One explanation for this discrepancy is that physical fitness and/or nutrition—rather than weight per se—may be what really matters. Several studies have shown that physically fit ‘obese’ individuals have lower incidence of heart disease and mortality from all causes than do sedentary people of ‘normal’ weight.”
So what does that mean?
It means that we can’t use weight to determine health.
Instead, we need to look at physical activity and eating habits, which are what really determine health.
But it also means we have got to stop judging a person’s health based on how they look. That’s going to be hard to do because it’s easy to assume that if a person is overweight or obese, then they have poor eating habits or don’t exercise. But that’s simply not always the case, which is why so many of those people—remember we’re talking about 33% of obese people and 50% of overweight people—are still healthy.
This is a point that hits close to home for me since I fall in that 33% of people who are technically obese but still healthy (with low blood pressure, low cholesterol, a low resting heart rate, and a very active lifestyle).
Moreover, I fear that if Americans don’t learn to understand that being overweight does not equal being unhealthy, they will continue to use dangerous dieting techniques to drop pounds fast. And these diets almost always lead to weight gain—and more health problems—in the long run.
Sadly, the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease is only going to cause more people to feel pressured to lose weight and diet, which is why it’s no surprise that some critics fear this classification “could lead to more reliance on costly drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes” and that it’s possible the AMA did this to help pharmaceutical companies sell anti-obesity drugs, two of which were introduced this year. “Some people might [also] be overtreated because their BMI was above a line designating them as having a disease, even though they were healthy.”
And how could this classification not lead to these kinds of problems? If someone says that being obese means you’re diseased, it’s perfectly normal to say, How can I be cured?
Which is why calling obesity a disease is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.