Is obesity considered a disease?
Here's what key medical bodies have to say.
Obesity is more than simply being overweight. It’s actually a pretty multifaceted condition that involves physical, psychological, hormonal, metabolic, genetic and environmental factors.
But is it technically a disease like hepatitis, diabetes and cancer? To some, it is. To others, it isn’t. The debate around whether or not obesity qualifies as a disease has continued for many years, and a definitive conclusion still hasn’t been reached.
That being said, one thing the majority of medical bodies and experts do agree on is that obesity is a major public health issue that can lead to other serious problems.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is obesity?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), obesity is “excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health” .
There are several things that can lead to someone becoming overweight or obese. These include having a poor diet and inadequate exercise as well as genetics, hormonal conditions and medications .
However, the complexity of obesity lies in the fact that it has a strong psychological component. Many people with obesity suffer from mood problems, low self-esteem, negative body image and poor quality of life .
How is obesity determined?
Obesity is usually assessed using a person’s body mass index, or BMI. This is calculated by dividing their weight in kilograms or pounds by the square of their height in metres or feet. WHO, for example, considers a person with a BMI of over 30 to be obese.
It’s worth noting, though, that someone’s BMI alone doesn’t give a completely accurate picture of how much body fat they’re carrying. There are other gauges to consider — like body fat percentage and waist measurement — that can give a more detailed indication of whether or not someone is obese.
Women with a normal amount of body fat typically have between 25-30%, but any more than that is considered obesity .
Waist circumference measures the amount of fat sitting around someone’s midsection. For women, a measurement of 80cm or more has an increased risk of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and several types of cancer .
Measuring BMI using a BMI calculator is really just a good starting point. In fact, we’ve got a Juniper BMI calculator you can use right now.
What are the complications associated with obesity?
The issue with obesity is that it dramatically impacts your overall health. It can lead to all kinds of problems, including physical, psychological and sexual ones.
Carrying excess weight affects everything from metabolic function to hormonal health, and obesity in particular is known to impact both quality of life and lifespan. It’s estimated that it can reduce life expectancy by an average of 3-10 years .
What are the long-term effects of obesity?
Having excessive body fat — particularly around the midsection — can elevate the risk of several medical conditions . These include:
- Coronary heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Different types of cancer, like breast, ovarian, cervical, uterine, liver, colon, pancreatic and rectal cancer
- Fatty liver disease and kidney disease
- Impaired respiratory function and lung disease
- Poor fertility
- Pregnancy problems like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes
- Sleep apnoea
- Mental health problems, including depression
Is obesity a disease?
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Medical Association, the European Medical Association, the World Obesity Federation and WHO, obesity is a disease .
The reason these bodies, as well as several medical experts, consider obesity to be a disease is that they don’t see it as a simple matter of weight gain through eating too much or eating the wrong things, and leading a sedentary lifestyle.
They view obesity as a much more complicated issue that often involves a genetic predisposition towards becoming obese, metabolic problems, or other health disorders that can lead to obesity.
Many experts also argue that obesity requires some form of medical intervention, like a formal care plan, much like other diseases. They say that classifying obesity as a disease provides obese people with more equitable access to healthcare and reduces the stigma around seeking help .
However, not all medical professionals and bodies are in agreeance with this classification.
Their argument is that obesity is difficult to determine, as BMI isn’t a totally accurate measurement and that because the causes of obesity are so complex, it can’t be put into a clear-cut category. They also say that the definition of ‘disease’ more broadly is hard to pinpoint and changes over time .
Locally, the Australian Medical Association doesn’t currently list obesity as a disease. However, the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society considers it a “chronic relapsing disease process”.
This effectively means it leads to serious health consequences in most people, but not all, and that it’s constant and difficult to beat. The organisation agrees that the term ‘disease’ is often badly defined .
As well, a 2018 federal government report recommended that obesity be categorised as one and be made eligible for Chronic Disease Management plans, which are structured care plans .
Is obesity an epidemic?
Like the definition of disease, there’s no clear quantifiable measure of an epidemic. But it’s broadly considered an unanticipated and sudden increase in cases across a geographical area, such as a community, region or even an entire nation.
It doesn’t just apply to communicable diseases, like COVID-19 and malaria, but includes non-contagious ones such as cardiovascular disease and even behaviours like smoking and taking certain drugs.
Many bodies and experts refer to obesity as an epidemic, too. They say that rates have increased — and continue to increase — so dramatically around the world that it’s become an incredibly pressing global public health issue.
The current numbers around obesity are fairly sobering. It’s estimated that about 31% of Australian adults have obesity, and nearly 42% of American adults . Around the world in 2016, there were 650 million obese adults and global obesity rates have also tripled since 1975 .
And contrary to popular belief, obesity doesn’t just affect industrialised countries. According to WHO, there are more obese than underweight people in every single region bar Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Ways to approach obesity treatment
There are several approaches for treating obesity, but remember that it can be a complicated thing to tackle. Rather than looking at diet and exercise alone, there may be several other factors at play — including psychological and medical influences — that are contributing to storing excess body fat.
Chat to your GP
Your GP is a great place to start. They can assess your condition and undertake testing to find any hormonal, medical or other reasons that may be causing it.
They can also discuss strategies for addressing weight loss, such as lifestyle changes, weight loss medication and even surgical options such as gastric banding if you're dealing with more severe obesity.
Modify your lifestyle
Diet and exercise are the cornerstones of weight loss. This is because losing weight often comes down to energy in (what and how much you eat) versus energy out (how much you’re using, usually via physical activity).
Together with your GP or a registered dietitian, look at your diet and see if you can make modifications. You could reduce the overall amount of food you’re eating, to induce a calorie deficit, or swap out high-sugar, high-salt and high-saturated fat foods for more nutritious ones. Go for things like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and unsaturated fats.
As well, try to avoid crash diets that promise quick results. These often backfire, as losing weight too quickly can cause you to gain weight in the long run. Instead, aim for sustainable lifestyle changes.
If you’re not exercising already, you can start slow. Aim for around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, which is where your heart rate increases and you break a bit of a sweat . You could try powerwalking, cycling or water aerobics — all of which are considered moderate-intensity activities.
Address any emotional causes
Because obesity is so often tied up with psychological and emotional underlying factors, you may want to confront these too.
A psychologist or other mental health professional can help you deal with these factors and address any behaviours or thought patterns that may be contributing. They can also help you implement new habits and manage the emotional side effects of obesity, like depression.
You might also find group therapy beneficial, particularly if you can link up with others in your area who are going through the same experience.
Join a weight loss program
Looking for a program that combines all of the above and more? Juniper’s Weight Reset Program is designed to help you lose weight safely and sustainably, with a multipronged approach that combines medication, lifestyle changes and emotional support.
You’ll receive GP-prescribed medication that suppresses your appetite and boosts metabolic function, as well as health coaching that looks at everything from diet and exercise to sleep and stress. You’ll also be invited to a private community of others who share the same weight loss goals and have access to health tracking to stay on top of your successes.
If you’re obese, it’s estimated that losing just 3% of your body weight can drastically lower the risk of developing other health complications . On average, Juniper’s Weight Reset can help the average patient lose approximately 7% of their body weight in the first 12 months .
Thousands of Australian women have found new confidence with Juniper.
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