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Tibor V. Varga

PhD student, Lund University

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Is OBESITY a disease?

In 2003 WHO gave the "disease" tag to obesity. Is this right? Is it really a disease or is it a cause/symptom/status? An excuse which gives us the feeling that taking pills or paying for surgery is our only option? Or a useful label which helps people understand that they do have a problem?


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    Dec 15 2011: Hmm. This is a subject I am sympathetic about and I feel that when dealing with obese people, empathy is required. However when dealing with the issue itself, part of me wonders whether the fact that obesity is or is not a disease is as relevant as whether its status as a disease renders it incurable, or its victims blameless.

    For example (and this is not as perfect as I would like but): throat cancer is a disease. Whilst it is not always caused by smoking, this is the most common cause. The fact that throat cancer is a disease does not make it unavoidable nor does it the victims of it (who smoke) blameless.

    With obesity it is the same -- even if it is a genetic issue and even though we have fast paced lives could we not fit in an hour to go to the gym every other day, scrutinise the food we feed our children more carefully and take them swimming or cycling on the weekends? Wouldn't this have an affect? It is not difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle; if anything the irony of our 'fast-paced lives' is that they have made us more indulgent and less active.
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      Dec 16 2011: Liked your example about throat cancer, good idea. Although it is very hard to illustrate the situation of obesity with any example, that is what makes the status of obesity debatable. :) The mere fact that throat cancer is (in most of the cases) incurable makes the comparison a lot weaker.
      Research has shown that the worst genetic setting can be attenuated, diminished with a proper lifestyle. And with this knowledge I cannot feel empathy (of course in some cases obesity can develop merely because of hormonal problems - that is another thing). And I find the healthcare money spent on self pitying obese people outrageously high...
      Your opinion?
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        Dec 16 2011: Well -- I suppose when I use the word empathy, I mean it purely as a more respectful version of pity. It is so easy to be contemptuous of someone who is obese. If the research you referenced is correct (although I must ask you for a reference for that, as I've never heard it and optimistic though I am about it, I cannot help but be doubtful...) then there is an argument that they have little excuse for their state and thus contempt becomes disgust and we stop seeing them as human beings altogether. Ultimately I have to be empathetic otherwise I become the very things I mentioned, contemptuous and disgusted and it is too easy and inhumane to fall into that trap.

        Also -- I am convinced that there must be some sort of condition involved. I'm not sure how (I'm as far from a biology student as it is possible to get) but I think I find the alternative that they are just gluttons in the extreme too unsatisfying and simplistic. To clarify, I believe they are gluttons in the extreme but something must be causing them to have no sense of proportion or limit even as it infringes on their lifestyle.

        Your point that throat cancer cannot be reversed whereas obesity can is valid (and one I had overlooked but it does support your earlier statement that our inability to find the perfect synonym for obesity is why people are able to debate it: there are too many nuances involved.

        Nevertheless I still stand with my point in my original response that, as much as I am curious about the cause in an attempt to see the victims of obesity as victims as opposed to self-pitying gluttons, the origin holds less sway for me than the practicality of solving it. In terms of health care spend on it, I feel the same way as you do but about smoking victims and as little sympathy as I have for them, the fact that smoking is addictive alleviates some of the blame in a way that does not apply to obesity.

        What do you think is a more potent question: why it starts or how to solve? prevention vs cure?

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