American Medical Association Classifies Obesity a Disease
The classification of obesity as a disease is well-justified, as we are finding out that obesity actually has more to do with hormone levels and neural responsivity than willpower. That is not to say that individual choice is not important or that people are not responsible for what they put into their bodies. However, it is much easier for some people than others to stay thin, based on both genetics and prior lifestyle. Once someone becomes obese, and is obese for some time, it is almost physically impossible for them to regain a normal body weight without surgery. The body adopts the obese weight as if it needed to be that weight to survive and enacts biological mechanisms that defend against any weight loss literally as if the person were starving to death. The fact that obesity is now officially recognized as a disease will allow for more research to be done to create treatments that circumvent the biological mechanisms that prevent weight loss. Up until now, these mechanisms have been largely ignored.
Some obese individuals are concerned that they’re being called “diseased.” However, this is a major step forward in the fight against obesity and win for obese people in general. Until the American Medical Association classifies something as a disease (or the American Psychiatric Association classifies it as a mental disorder), very few insurance companies will reimburse for its treatment. That means that, until now, only the wealthy (who have the lowest rates of obesity) have been able to afford obesity treatment, which is typically quite expensive. We now expect obesity treatments that have been proven to be effective to be reimbursed by insurance companies. These include commercial behavioral weight loss programs (such as Jenny Craig & Weight Watchers), meal replacement programs (such as Slim Fast, MediFast and Optifast) and weight loss counseling from qualified individuals practicing validated lifestyle change (cognitive behavioral therapy based) treatments. Further, we would expect more of these programs to be offered now that hospitals and treatment centers know that the people who really need them can actually afford them.
Finally, the classification may help reduce the false stigma that obese people are simply lazy and lack willpower. It will be interesting to see whether the American Psychiatric Association will look to include obesity as a mental disorder in the next iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), as there is growing evidence that obesity may be causally related to maladaptive patterns of neural responsivity in the brain.
Summary: Treatment, access to treatment, and the stigma surrounding obesity will all be improved considerably by this commendable move by the AMA.