Is Obesity a Disease?
The simple answer is no. But it is a little more complicated than that.
More and more Americans are obese (35.7% in 2012). This trend is often referred to as an epidemic, suggesting it is a disease. But of course obesity isn’t spread via an infection from one person to the next, so using the word epidemic is a bit of a misnomer. Obesity is definitely associated with greater levels of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases, but is it a disease itself?
In June 2013, the American Medical Association decided to call obesity a disease, over objections by many, including their own committee that studied the matter. You can read about their decision here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/business/ama-recognizes-obesity-as-a-disease.html?_r=0
It is true that obesity, in and of itself, does cause some problems. For example, greater weight causes extra stress on bones and joints. And it is believed that fat particles within cells interfere with the take-up of glucose by the cells and therefore plays a role in Type II diabetes. However, obesity is not the root cause of diabetes or heart disease, but a symptom of a root problem that causes a host of diseases.
At the Healthy Taste of the South Bay on June 23, 1013, a panel of experts was asked the question, “Is obesity a disease?” Dr. Hans Diehl, founder of CHIP, co-author of Health Power said “No.” Dr. Terry Mason from Forks Over Knives, and chief medical officer of Cook County, Illinois said “No.” And Dr. Baxter Montgomery a cardiologist and author of The Food Prescription for Better Health said “No.” and then added that the disease was really “bad-food-itis” (pronounced bad-food-eye-tis). His somewhat whimsical name for a deadly serious problem captures the essence of the issue. That is, eating bad food leads to obesity as well as heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. So it is no wonder that obesity is correlated with these diseases. But this panel’s unanimous conclusion is that obesity itself is not a disease.
And these experts will also tell you that the bad food that we are eating that causes all these problems contains animal products (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, butter, eggs), oils, and refined products (sugar, white flour). The good food that banishes heart disease, type II diabetes, and obesity, is made up of whole plants including vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits.
So why did the AMA define obesity as a disease? The simple answer: money. With a categorization of disease, obesity drugs and bariatric surgery are more likely to be considered for reimbursement. In my opinion, the last thing we need is for more tax money or insurance premium hikes going to pay for ineffective and dangerous drugs and surgeries, especially when the solution to obesity is known, is inexpensive, and has only positive side effects. Adopting a whole plant-based eating pattern can solve the obesity “epidemic” and it doesn’t require counting calories, an unrealistic level of will power, or going hungry. All it requires is a consistent choice of eating whole plants.
John Tanner, PhD 11-12-2013
Director, NuSci, The Nutrition Science Foundation
(626) 872-4050 Pacific Time