Share This Page

Medical community catches obesity hype

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Soon, going to the doctor's office and having your height and weight checked might not be a simple, routine evaluation, but instead a determination of whether you have a disease. While common sense says that being fat is typically the consequence of a combination of immoderate eating and laziness, don't tell the American Medical Association (AMA). To this large group of doctors, who really should know better, carrying a few extra pounds is now a “disease.”

So if a fat guy sneezes, should you run for cover lest you catch a case of the “fats”? Not so fast.

While one's weight can be a contributing factor to actual diseases, there's little evidence that merely being fat is a disease in and of itself. Evaluations of health statistics by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that being moderately overweight is linked with longer lifespan than the officially designated “healthy weight.” Even slight obesity is not linked with a noticeable increased risk of death. The complexities in the debate and in obesity's effect on the body led the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, which evaluated the proposal over a yearlong period, to recommend rejecting the notion that obesity was a disease.

More important than falling into a particular weight-to-height category is the practice of healthy habits. Vigorous exercise, a balanced diet and refraining from smoking are all important to living a longer, healthier life with a reduced risk of disease. That applies regardless of what arbitrary category the body mass index puts a person into.

This is borne out by science. Researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina found that people who ate their fruits and vegetables, didn't smoke, drank no more than in moderation, and exercised regularly lived longer, regardless of how heavy they were.

The AMA's classification of obesity as a “disease” has far-reaching effects, starting with undermining the principle of personal responsibility.

The AMA's decision is only the first attempt to take well-understood concepts about medical conditions and apply them to food-related issues in the service of a pro-regulation and pro-trial lawyer ideology. The next maneuver is an attempt to declare foods to be “addictive” like drugs. To activist researchers like Kelly Brownell, the engine behind the parallel movement to put “sin” taxes on soft drinks, merely enjoying food makes a person a possible “addict.” Activists say that since the brain releases pleasure chemicals when a person eats, people can get hooked.

Responsible researchers disagree, however. After careful consideration of the meaning of “addiction” and the actual results of the studies, a Cambridge University research team concluded that “criteria for substance dependence translate poorly to food-related behaviors.”

The call of money and influence risks trumping sound science. The AMA's move allows for doctors to chase insurance reimbursements. Calling food “addictive” gives trial lawyers what they need to seek a courtroom payday. But hopefully the common sense that clearly shows that a hot dog isn't a heroin needle, and that personal responsibility and moderation are key in staying healthy, can still prevail.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.