Is obesity a disease?



It depends on whom you ask. But if you ask me, obesity should not be labeled a disease.

I understand the rationale for calling obesity a disease—it helps legitimize the time we spend treating obesity and aids in getting paid for that time. Some people have distinct diseases, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, hypothyroidism, and Cushing’s syndrome that can cause obesity, and perhaps massive obesity is best categorized and treated as a disease. But the “garden variety” obesity that affects nearly 40% of the US adult population1 behaves more like a risk factor than a disease. Think of other continuous variables like blood pressure and cholesterol—the higher the measurement, the higher the risk of a plethora of medical problems.

Obesity is a global public health problem that is due largely—at least in this country—to the widespread availability of inexpensive, calorie-packed foods, as well as a desire by a screen-addicted society to stay home and “play” online rather than outdoors. Obesity is a health risk factor produced by our current social milieu and modified by genetics and personal health habits.

Remember that a 5% to 10% weight loss is beneficial—especially for patients with diabetes.

So what can we do? We need to recognize our limited, but important, role and remain nonjudgmental with our overweight and obese patients when they are unsuccessful at losing weight. It is easy to play the blame game, even in subtle ways. Recognizing that obesity is more of a social issue than a personal behavioral issue is a great place to start. Asking patients what they want to do and helping them set goals and find the resources to reach their goals can be helpful. Celebrating even small decreases in weight or increases in physical activity is always good medicine. Remember that a 5% to 10% weight loss has medically beneficial effects, especially for patients with diabetes.2

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