Medical community catches obesity hype
By J. Justin Wilson
Published: 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.
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