The American Medical Association has adopted a policy that now recognizes obesity as a “disease” in hopes of spurring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention.
While the designation might surprise some Americans who are seriously overweight, it doesn’t surprise many members of the medical community who for years have recognized and treated obesity as a disease.
“In the field — whether it’s biomedical research or medicine — medical professionals have always identified obesity as a condition that is linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease,” said Saraswathy Nair, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“It is so tightly correlated that it is known as co-morbidity. … the designation that it is a disease is not so much a surprise to us in the field because we’ve always thought of it as a disease,” Nair said.
The AMA voted on the policy Tuesday and while it is the association’s policy only, physicians hope it will change the way society deals with 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,” said AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D. “The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”
Nair said the discussion should not be about the classification, but about what researchers are doing to determine what proportion of obesity is caused by genetic factors and what proportion is caused by environmental factors.
“It’s a good thing to be aware of, but it should not be used to stigmatize people,” she said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, an adult with a body mass index of 30 or higher is considered obese. The CDC reports that more than one-third of the nation’s adults and almost 17 percent of children and teenagers were obese in 2009-2010.
A Gallup poll released earlier this year found the McAllen-Pharr-Mission area is the most overweight in the nation with about 38.5 percent of the population in Hidalgo County considered obese.
Dr. Stephen Brotherton, president of the Texas Medical Association, said the AMA‘s move shows that physicians agree obesity is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“The support for that was strong,” said Brotherton, an orthopedic surgeon.
Brotherton said one of the best ways to address the issue is to ensure everyone has access to a primary care doctor. He said there is a lot of research that shows people who have a primary care doctor live longer, are healthier and engage in less risky behavior.
The TMA is trying to get changes made to the state’s Medicaid program and expand it so more people can get insurance coverage and gain access to primary care doctors, he said.
“If we can get better access to those Medicaid patients in (the Rio Grande Valley) to a primary care physician, I think that is the best chance of reducing obesity” in the Valley, Brotherton said.
Will the new designation force Americans to change their eating habits and sedentary lifestyle? Probably not, said one Brownsville personal trainer, who also operates a fitness boot camp.
“I don’t think that labeling obesity a disease will cause people to change their habits. It is not going to be like an alarm and say ‘OK, now I really need to lose weight,’” said Sal Garza, a personal trainer and owner of SGBoot Camp.
“It’s good that it is labeled a disease because it is. The majority of the people that are overweight or obese are because of lifestyle choices,” Garza said, adding that there is a small percentage of people who are obese because of genetics.
Garza said people must change their eating habits and implement exercise into their daily routine to get healthy. He said changing Valley residents’ eating habits has to begin at a young age.
In an area where eating barbacoa on Sundays, flour tortillas, menudo and having outdoor barbecues are pretty much a staple, Garza said if people change their eating habits they could live healthier lives.
“It’s not OK to eat barbacoa for breakfast, menudo for lunch and then a big cookout with tortillas de harina for dinner,” Garza said. “Pick one and don’t do all three, and (with) just small changes, I think people will be more successful at it (losing weight).”