Obesity has become an epidemic globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese. Earlier it was in high-income countries but is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Obesity is defined as “an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.”
WHO defines a disease as “a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or function of part or all of an organism, and that is not due to any external injury.”
The standard measure of obesity is body-mass index (BMI), the ratio of weight to height. For adults, a BMI greater than 30 is associated with increased risk of illness, disability and death.
Globally, 41 million preschool children were overweight in 2016 making childhood obesity one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. Overweight children are likely to become obese adults and it increased their chances of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes at a younger age.
There has been an ongoing debate among the researchers on whether obesity should be recognized as a disease as its definition by WHO meets the definition of disease also given by WHO.
The researchers argue that more than 200 genes influence body weight and these are present in brain tissues. Thus the onus of body weight, fat distribution and risk of complications is completely on the biology of a person and it’s not his fault to have obesity. They point out that recognizing obesity as a disease will help reduce the stigma attached to being obese.
They also argue that the recent increase in the number of cases of obesity is not due to genetics but due to factors like physical environment, type of food and its cost and social factors.
The researchers disagree to the notion that recognizing obesity as a disease would help obese escape from their personal responsibility from taking action against it. They also argue that people take action even against common diseases like High Blood Pressure and diabetes and hence they would take the same responsibility even for obesity.
All these findings by a team of researchers were published in the British Weekly Journal.
Yet the widespread view is that Obesity is self-imposed and that an individual takes the sole responsibility to act upon it. It is usually the result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.
The researchers say to what extent obesity should be classified as a disease still remain unclear. They are of the view that this question arose because labelling Obesity as disease risks reducing autonomy, disempowering and robbing people of intrinsic motivation that is such an important enabler of change.
American Medical Association has already recognized Obesity as a chronic disease affecting the health adversely.
Imposing such a status has broad ramifications for society and requires careful reflection. Making obesity a disease may not benefit patients but will certainly benefit the health care providers, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry all of which rely on treatment with drugs and surgery.
How can we combat Obesity?
If individuals start taking personal responsibility by doing regular physical activity throughout their lives, switching to a healthy diet and avoiding bad habits triggering obesity then they can make a difference to their health.
However individual responsibility can have its full effect where people have supportive environments and communities that are fundamental in shaping people’s choices and hence preventing obesity.
Children should be given education and favourable surrounding environment for healthy dietary and physical activity habits to prevent childhood obesity which is associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability.
Whether Obesity is recognized as a disease or not our efforts as a society should be to provide a roadmap to establish and strengthen initiatives for the surveillance, prevention and management of non -communicable diseases including obesity.