June 19, 2013 at 8:40 AM ET
The American Medical Association officially designated obesity as a disease on Tuesday – a disease that requires medical treatment and prevention.
The organization doesn’t have any kind of official say in the matter, but it’s influential nonetheless, and the vote of the AMA’s policy-making House of Delegates is one more step in the evolution of social attitudes towards obesity.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris said in a statement.
One third of Americans are obese – and that’s on top of the one-third who are overweight. Obesity is more than just a matter of carrying around too much fat, says Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“The fat cells themselves we thought of for a long time as just warehouses for energy,” Joyner said in a telephone interview. But they also secrete chemicals, including chemicals that can cause inflammation, raise blood pressure and that down the road help harden the arteries.
“More widespread recognition of obesity as a disease could result in greater investments by government and the private sector to develop and reimburse obesity treatments,” the AMA said in one statement on the issue.
“Employers may be required to cover obesity treatments for their employees and may be less able to discriminate on the basis of body weight.”
The downside, the AMA says, is that people may expect that should be able to take a pill and “cure” obesity.
That clearly isn’t going to happen, Joyner says. Pharmaceutical companies have tried and tried, but just a very few drugs are approved for weight loss and even they don’t produce spectacular results.
“It is very, very difficult, once people get fat, to lose fat and keep it off,” Joyner says. “We live in a low-physical-activity, high-calorie, high-food-variety environment,” he added. “We are bombarded with images of food.”
But designating obesity as a disease could make it easier for policymakers to make changes. This has happened before with public health – once with smoking, and again with driving safety.
With smoking, first the U.S. Surgeon-General declared that smoking could cause disease, then gradually workplaces and then public places began banning smoking. Taxes on tobacco and restrictions on who could buy tobacco products helped – and smoking rates plummeted from above 40 percent in the 1960s to 18 percent now.
With traffic safety, first speed laws, then requirements for vehicles to have seat belts and air bags helped reduce deaths, Joyner said.
Now something policy measures are needed for obesity, the AMA says.
“It changes the ways society looks at things. It gives people maybe a new set of tools,” Joyner says.