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Which Way Will the Scales Tip?

Which Way Will the Scales Tip?

ObesityAs of June 18 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) has recognized obesity as a disease. I agree with that decision to a certain degree: obesity really does cause dis-ease. The goal of that decision is, in the words of the AMA, to “change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects roughly 1 in 3 Americans.”

Change will come for sure, and I have mixed feelings about it. Let’s review the main pros and cons, and then see what it means for us as health coaches, promoters, and professionals.

Let’s Start with the Cons

  1. The new classification separates the people from the condition.  Those who are overly heavy may find it easier to feel that they are victims of an unfortunate and uncontrollable illness than to keep track of the role they play in their condition.  Sure, a small percentage of obesity can be caused by malfunctioning thyroid systems or delinquent genes. However we know the vast majority of obesity cases are based on lifestyle choices, and I feel that reducing accountability isn’t helpful.
  2. The new classification will probably prompt more medication and surgical treatments to be requested, produced, marketed, and prescribed. Fast forward 10 years and we’ll probably know more about significant undesirable side effects for all these medical and surgical treatments, such as possible increased risk of cancer, heart-disease, and infertility. Will we just be moving the boo-boo around?
  3. Calling obesity a disease can give greater peace of mind to the the food companies that make a bad thing worse by heavily processing food products and labeling addictive, sugar-laden foods as “healthy” or “fit.”  They may feel relieved of the responsibility to produce better alternatives because it’s now up to big pharma to come up with remedial measures.

And Now, the Pros

I also recognize that this new classification may bring hope and opportunity for helping overweight people in more effective ways.

  1. As more people get officially diagnosed, insurance companies may become more likely to cover health coaching as an effective remedy.  I welcome this possibility!
  2. Many doctors already recognize the growing need for coaching, while simultaneously realizing that they don’t really know how or have time to coach.  As they diagnose more people with obesity, doctors may become more likely to prescribe coaching to their patients. Some may even hire coaches to be part of their practices in order to help their patients adopt healthier lifestyles. That’s another bright prospect.
  3. Making obesity an official disease may make more research funding available to study its causes, treatments, and best ways to educate the public on its prevention. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that processed foods play a large role in the situation and that food companies bear heavy responsibility for the increasing incidence of obesity. As research findings accumulate connecting processed foods to the incidence of obesity, food companies may be held sufficiently accountable to cause them to invest in significant changes.

At the end of the day, this new classification presents the threat that easy fixes will become even easier, more deceptive, and more wide-spread. It also gives us an opportunity to become bolder and stronger in addressing the root causes of obesity.

It’s up to us to make the difference. Which way do you think the scales will tip?

  • Sandra

    Personally I don’t really get how a weight classification system can be used as a disease. Using the BMI as an indicator of health is seriously flawed. It will significantly over diagnose those who are ‘overweight’ and metabolically healthy(estimates of up to 50%)and also miss those that are ‘normal’ weight that are metabolically unhealthy(almost 25%).
    If we want to hold people ‘accountable’ for their health then I don’t think we should do it based on their weights. As coaches I think we do want to encourage everyone no matter what shape or size to practice good health behavoirs. We just need to remember that social determinants of health play a far bigger role than health behaviors ever do.

    • You make very good points, Sandra! I sure hope that doctors would look at other factors such as heart pressure, glucose levels and waist circumference before making a diagnosis. For sure, using BMI alone can be a very scary thought. And definitely, we need to encourage everyone no matter where they are starting from. (Did you see my Facebook post about never giving up on clients?) But can you say more about “social determinants play a far bigger role than health behaviors ever do?” Do you mean that social factors influence health behaviors heavily? Or something else?

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  • Pingback: The Difference between Health Promotion and Disease Prevention()

MJ Shaar – in 20 seconds


MJ is one of the most sought-after experts blending positive psychology and health promotion. She spent over 15 years coaching, teaching, speaking, researching and testing smart health habits. Marie-Josée Shaar received her undergrad at McGill University in Organizational Behavior, followed by a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. She's certified as a Wellness Culture Coach, a Personal Trainer, and a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.

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