Graphic courtesy the Associated Press
(NBC NEWS) -- The American Medical Association officially designated obesity as a
disease on Tuesday - a disease that requires medical treatment and
The organization doesn't have any kind of official
say in the matter, but it's influential nonetheless, and the vote of
the AMA's policy-making House of Delegates is one more step in the
evolution of social attitudes towards obesity.
obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community
tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three
Americans," AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris said in a statement.
third of Americans are obese - and that's on top of the one-third who
are overweight. Obesity is more than just a matter of carrying around
too much fat, says Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise physiologist at the
Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"The fat cells themselves we
thought of for a long time as just warehouses for energy," Joyner said
in a telephone interview. But they also secrete chemicals, including
chemicals that can cause inflammation, raise blood pressure and that
down the road help harden the arteries.
recognition of obesity as a disease could result in greater investments
by government and the private sector to develop and reimburse obesity
treatments," the AMA said in one statement on the issue.
may be required to cover obesity treatments for their employees and may
be less able to discriminate on the basis of body weight."
The downside, the AMA says, is that people may expect that should be able to take a pill and "cure" obesity.
clearly isn't going to happen, Joyner says. Pharmaceutical companies
have tried and tried, but just a very few drugs are approved for weight
loss and even they don't produce spectacular results.
"It is very,
very difficult, once people get fat, to lose fat and keep it off,"
Joyner says. "We live in a low-physical-activity, high-calorie,
high-food-variety environment," he added. "We are bombarded with images
But designating obesity as a disease could make it
easier for policymakers to make changes. This has happened before with
public health - once with smoking, and again with driving safety.
smoking, first the U.S. Surgeon-General declared that smoking could
cause disease, then gradually workplaces and then public places began
banning smoking. Taxes on tobacco and restrictions on who could buy
tobacco products helped - and smoking rates plummeted from above 40
percent in the 1960s to 18 percent now.
With traffic safety, first
speed laws, then requirements for vehicles to have seat belts and air
bags helped reduce deaths, Joyner said.
Now something policy measures are needed for obesity, the AMA says.
"It changes the ways society looks at things. It gives people maybe a new set of tools," Joyner says.