Over the last 40 years, obesity has grown to become one of the nation’s leading public health concerns. Currently 35 percent of all adults over the age of 20 are obese, while 18 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 18 also qualify as obese, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. In total, 69 percent of the adult population in the U.S. meets the qualification of either being overweight or obese.
To help Americans better manage their weight and to understand the importance of eating a balanced diet, public health experts have long advocated for the country’s obesity epidemic to receive increased awareness. Now in an effort to shift the nation’s attention towards the dangers presented by excessive weight gain, the American Medical Association has now officially classified obesity as a disease.
Proponents of this move hope that the AMA’s decision will help to shift the way doctors and patients view the dangerous complications associated with obesity, and that the designation may even increase the number of treatment options covered by insurance providers.
A Better Understanding
While the AMA might only now change the way it classifies obesity, doctors and health officials have long considered obesity as a chronic illness. However, now that obesity officially carries the designation as a disease, proponents of the change are optimistic that more resources will be devoted to treating and reducing the number of Americans who are obese.
Currently, the most commonly used treatments for obesity- which includes the use of prescription medication, surgery, and nutritional counseling- are not covered by most insurance plans. This gap in care means that millions of patients don’t receive the care they need because they can’t afford to pay the expense for treatment out-of-pocket. Proponents of the change have argued that if insurance covered more of these types of treatment it would increase the number of referrals and services offered to patients.
Under the system currently in place, most doctors must diagnose patients as have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure- all conditions related to obesity- in order for them to receive treatment under most insurance plans.
In addition to providing patients with more treatment options, proponents of the AMA’s policy change hope that classifying obesity as a disease will ensure that more resources are dedicated to the funding of obesity prevention and treatment research, while also helping to remove the negative stigma and discrimination millions of obese individuals experience as a result of their disease.
A Slippery Slope
Despite the positive support the AMA’s decision has earned from many within the health industry, not everyone is onboard with obesity’s new classification. Many doctors within the AMA itself strongly argued against designating obesity as a disease.
One of the primary arguments against hinges on the way doctors currently diagnose obesity, which uses a height to weight ratio referred to as the body mass index that some health experts believe offers inexact standards.
Others argue that classifying obesity as a disease removes the personal responsibility aspect of the condition. Typically the term disease referrers to a condition that causes the body to malfunction and breakdown. But when the body transforms excess calories into fat that’s not a malfunction, it’s part of normal physiology. To call obesity a disease suggests that a person’s individual dietary habits did not play a role in causing their weight gain, rather that becoming obese was somehow out of their control.
To many on this side of the argument, combating obesity means asking Americans to reassess their relationship with food and what constitutes as a healthy calorie intake. While some preexisting genetic conditions can make losing weight difficult, the majority of obese Americans only need look themselves in the mirror to discover the cause of their “disease.”
However, regardless of where health experts sit in regards to how obesity is classified, most everyone agrees that treatment for obesity needs to be covered by most health insurance plans. Now that millions can hopefully begin to receive coverage, health experts can only wait and see what effect this may have on the weight of the nation.
Timothy Lemke is a freelance health and science writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Mick Brooks, a Tumwater, WA dentist.