AMA officially recognizes obesity as a disease

WEB-Obesity-Mark Burnham

The American Medical Association (AMA), the largest association of medical doctors in the United States, has recently voted in favour of recognizing obesity as “a disease state with multiple pathophysiological aspects.”

The World Health Organization, Food and Drug Administration and Internal Revenue Agency have all previously categorized obesity as a disease, a fact cited by the AMA in their decision. The association also cited “an overabundance of clinical evidence to identify obesity as a multi-metabolic and hormonal disease state,” according to a recent resolution.

“The suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle . . . is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes,” the resolution continued.

The World Health Organization defines obesity as resulting from a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI)  — a calculation in which a person’s weight in kilograms is divided by their height in meters — being greater than or equal to 30. According to Statistics Canada, in 2010, 19 per cent of males and 21 per cent of females aged 20 to 39 were classified as obese. In a 2007 study by Forbes magazine, Canada was ranked the 35th “fattest country,” with 61.1 per cent of Canadians at an unhealthy weight.

Obesity has also been proven to increase the chances of contracting other diseases, such as type two diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Dementia, sleep apnea and depression have also been linked with obesity.

“I definitely agree it should be considered a disease,” said Diana Bedoya, a professor in SFU’s Kinesiology department who also runs a website that promotes weight loss and positive self-image. “It’s kind of surprising it’s taken so long.”

According to Dr. Bedoya, though the decision has no legal consequences, it will have important reverberations in the medical community. “I think it’ll change the way people look at [obesity], and maybe give it a bit more attention that it deserves. And maybe more resources will finally go into prevention and potentially treatment for it as well.”

However, not all reactions to the resolution have been positive. In a recent article for The Globe and Mail, Andrew Ryan said the decision “could lead to more reliance on expensive drugs and surgery rather than people affecting lifestyle changes. Why opt for fruit and vegetables and taking long walks when there’s lap band surgery and new diet drugs?”

Bedoya is resistant to consider obesity as purely the result of poor eating habits and lack of physical activity. “It’s a very complex disorder,” she said. “There are still doctors out there who think that’s it’s just an individual problem and that people should just learn to eat less and exercise more. But it’s way more complex than that.”

The Canadian Medical Association, Canada’s equivalent medical organization, has yet to formally recognize obesity as a disease. However, Bedoya is confident that the AMA’s decision will inspire debate: “It’ll at least spawn a discussion at the next meeting, that’s for sure.”