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Debating the Disease of Obesity


ObesityThe United States’ struggle with obesity took another turn Tuesday, when the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates chose to recognize obesity as a disease that merits medical attention for treatment and prevention.

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In other words, according to the AMA, the one-third of this country that’s diagnosed as obese are now ill, and another one-third that are categorized as overweight are at risk of contracting this “new” disease.

This designation leaves me with more questions than answers: What defines the symptoms of said disease? If you are obese – and therefore ill – when your body mass index crosses 30, what does that mean for weightlifters and large athletes? How will health care providers react to this new “illness”? How will this statement affect coverage under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) next year? Will it have any effect at all?

While the AMA’s vote has no legal bearing, their recommendations are taken very seriously both inside and outside the medical community – their opinions turn into national news. There are certainly people who could use medical help with losing and controlling their weight, but this sort of blanket statement ignores a huge flaw when it comes to measuring your BMI: the weight portion of the formula doesn’t take into account whether your weight is mostly muscle or fat. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds (according to ESPN.com), LeBron James’ BMI is 27.5 – not obese, but certainly overweight. Six-time All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, at 6-1 and 240 pounds, has a BMI of 31.7. Take a look at his picture – if that’s obese, I must be eating the wrong kind of hamburgers.

I’ve had my own struggles with weight loss – I love a good meal and two or three drinks to go with it – but if the system you’re using to judge someone’s fitness is flawed from the beginning, calling said issues a “disease” would be misguided at best. I believe that taking weight issues on a case-by-case basis was actually the right idea from the beginning. I believe it’s easier to focus your attention on getting our government officials to recognize that obesity is “a major public health problem” and working on ways to alleviate the issue, whether it’s through the ACA or working with private health care providers to offer more options. I know some of you may be afraid of “big government”, but I believe a joint private-public initiative for this is what’s needed to stem the tide.

Lastly, it’s hard to ignore what the AMA’s decision means for children. In 2010, more than a third of children were considered overweight or obese. How does this affect standards for programs like the school lunches, or time allotted for recess or physical education? While doctors play their role to lower these numbers, perhaps apathy towards athleticism is a greater scourge upon today’s youth. While some prefer to blame video games or television, I think some of the issues come back to how we parent. My parents had no qualms about me playing sports with my friends for hours, especially during the summer months. Here’s a reminder to think about: the sun is an excellent source of vitamin D, which can help fend off insomnia, depression and certain types of cancer – oh, and with your child running around with their friends, it can help fight the battle of the bulge, too.

While declaring obesity a disease may bring more attention to this country’s weight issues, it’s not exactly the silver bullet to ending the problem. Sometimes, the solutions are plentiful and simple – in this case, even a walk outside is a literal step in the right direction.


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