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Is Obesity a Disease?

Obesity isn’t usually considered a disease in the UK, but other counties such as the US and Portugal already treat it as a medical issue rather than a lifestyle choice. The Royal College of Physicians is calling for the same shift in perceptions to happen here.

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Changing the Way We Define Obesity

Getting doctors and the public to think of obesity as a disease could be an important step in addressing this growing health problem. An estimated 63% of adults in the UK are now classed as overweight or obese. Many of us will be overweight for large portions of our lives, making this a long-term condition that can have a dramatic impact on our health and wellbeing. Although obesity is often talked about in terms of greed, laziness and personal responsibility, the causes are much more complex than this.

What Makes Obesity a Disease?

Defining obesity as a disease does make sense in many ways. A disease is a disorder that has a negative effect on the structure or function of our bodies, without being caused by an injury. It usually produces specific symptoms or effects and often has an identifiable cause. Some diseases are infectious, but there are also non-communicable diseases like heart conditions.
Obesity fits the definition of a disease very well, specifically of a chronic, progressive disease:

  • Obesity has negative effects on our bodies and often causes similar symptoms in those of us who are overweight.
  • It is a chronic problem that can affect people for years or even an entire lifetime.
  • Many people experience relapses where they re-gain weight after losing it.
  • Obesity is often progressive, which means that weight tends to increase over time and the effects on your body also get worse.
  • We know that there are genetic components to obesity, with specific genes that can increase or decrease your chances of being affected.
  • The environment we live in, which is full of high energy foods and few opportunities to use up this energy, is the main risk factor for obesity.

Why Does It Matter?

Thinking of obesity as a disease may help us to manage it more effectively. The way that people often think and talk about obesity at the moment can be very harmful and unhelpful. There is a tendency to blame people for being overweight or to moralise about obesity, which can make it much harder for people to seek help and make changes in their lives. Seeing obesity as a disease that is linked to genetics and environmental factors that are outside our control could make treating it a lot easier. People are much more likely to ask their doctors for help when they have a disease.

If defining obesity as a disease can help us all to be a little less judgemental (of ourselves as well as of others) and enables more people to reach a healthy BMI, then it is clearly a good idea. Taking this step could enable the UK to implement better preventative measures and treatments for obesity. It could also enable us all to be more tolerant and understanding about obesity.