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Arguments For Calling Obesity A Disease #2: It Is Driven By Biology

Continuing in my miniseries on reasons why obesity should be considered a disease, I turn to the idea that obesity is largely driven by biology (in which I include psychology, which is also ultimately biology). This is something people dealing with mental illness discovered a long time ago – depression is “molecules in your brain” – well, so is obesity! Let me explain. Humans throughout evolutionary history, like all living creatures, were faced with a dilemma, namely to deal with wide variations in food availability over time (feast vs. famine). Biologically, this means that they were driven in times of plenty to take up and store as many calories as they could in preparation for bad times – this is how our ancestors survived to this day. While finding and eating food during times of plenty does not require much work or motivation, finding food during times of famine requires us to go to almost any length and risks to find food. This risk-taking behaviour is biologically ensured by tightly linking food intake to the hedonic reward system, which provides the strong intrinsic motivator to put in the work required to find foods and consume them beyond our immediate needs. Indeed, it is this link between food and pleasure that explains why we would go to such lengths to further enhance the reward from food by converting raw ingredients into often complex dishes involving hours of toiling in the kitchen. Human culinary creativity knows no limits – all in the service of enhancing pleasure. Thus, our bodies are perfectly geared towards these activities. When we don’t eat, a complex and powerful neurohormonal response takes over (aka hunger), till the urge becomes overwhelming and forces us to still our appetites by seeking, preparing and consuming foods – the hungrier we get, the more we seek and prepare foods to deliver even greater hedonic reward (fat, sugar, salt, spices). The tight biological link between eating and the reward system also explains why we so often eat in response to emotions – anxiety, depression, boredom, happiness, fear, loneliness, stress, can all make us eat. But eating is also engrained into our social behaviour (again largely driven by biology) – as we bond to our mothers through food, we bond to others through eating. Thus, eating has been part of virtually every celebration and social gathering for as long as anyone can remember. Food is celebration, bonding, culture, and identity – all… Read More »

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Arguments For Calling Obesity A Disease #1: It Impairs Health

Following my miniseries of arguments I often hear against calling obesity a disease, I now turn to reasons why I (and a number of organisations and experts) do consider obesity to be a disease. Let us start with the most obvious reason, namely that obesity, by definition, affects health and well-being. Remember, I am not talking about the BMI definition of obesity – I am talking about the actual WHO definition of obesity as a condition where excess or abnormal body fat affects health. I have already discussed that there are indeed folks across a wide range of body shapes and sizes, who are perfectly healthy – by this definition they do not have obesity (no doubt, BMI and measuring tapes get this wrong). On the other hand, even the most vehement fat acceptance enthusiasts will find it hard to argue that there are indeed many folks in whom there is indeed a direct link between excess body fat and health – be it functional limitiations or medical complications. Thus, excess weight with sleep apnea is obesity, excess weight with type 2 diabetes is obesity, excess weight with hypertension is obesity, excess weight with reflux disease is obesity, and so on. What some people find confusing is that fact that many of the complications of obesity can also be found in people with “normal” weight, which leads them to question the relationship between excess body fat and health. Indeed, almost all complications of obesity can also be found in people of “normal” weight but that is because the “complications”, in turn, can have multiple causes. Take for example fatty liver disease, the most common cause of which is alcohol, which is why in the context of obesity, we use the term – non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. But even if you exclude alcohol, there are a number of other factors that can cause fatty liver disease and these should be ruled out before jumping to conclusions that the fatty liver indeed related to the excess body fat. The same can be said for almost any medical condition associated with excess weight – before concluding that these conditions are related to the excess weight, other possible explanations should be ruled out. Ultimately, the test lies in observing the response to a change in body weight – does the condition get better with weight loss or worse with weight gain – if yes, it is likely related… Read More »

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Arguments Against Obesity As A Disease #10: Affects Too Many People

And finally, to end this miniseries on the arguments I often hear against calling obesity, is the objection based on the idea that there are simply too many people living with obesity to apply the label “disease” to. Doing so, would mean that over 7 million Canadians would wake up to find themselves living with a disease. Related to this argument, I also often encounter the argument, that calling obesity a disease would turn these 7,000,000 Canadians into “patients” thereby completely overwhelming our healthcare system that would now be called about to provide treatments to all these people. I hear from payers and policy makers that providing treatments for obesity as a disease is simply not practical because of the number of people who have it. As I think about it, both arguments are rubbish. Firstly, the definition of disease has nothing to do with how many people are affected. Thus, I have never heard anyone say that we need to stop calling diabetes a disease because it affects 6 million Canadians or we need to stop calling depression a disease because 2.5 million Canadians will be affected during the course of their lives. No one would ever suggest we stop calling the flu a disease just because it affects millions of Canadians leading to 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year. So arguing that we must not call obesity a disease because that would be declaring far too many people as “diseased”, is simply irrelevant. Even if a disease affects 100% of the population causing important health problems and complications, we’d still be calling it a disease. As for overwhelming the healthcare system – I would say obesity is costing the health care system whether you call it a disease or not. We will still have to pay for all the health issues directly related to people having obesity – from diabetes to heart disease to joint replacements to cancers. It’s already costing billions of healthcare dollars. Except that we are now spending those dollars on the complications rather than on preventing and treating obesity itself. Again, if there was any other “disease” threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system, our response would certainly not be to simply stop calling it a “disease” – that would make no sense at all. This concludes my miniseries on arguments I often hear against calling obesity a disease (there are some I hear less often).… Read More »

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Arguments Against Obesity As A Disease #9: Its Just A Risk Factor

Next, in my miniseries on arguments I commonly hear against the notion of calling obesity a disease, is that it is “just a risk factor” for other diseases. This may be true, if you just (wrongly) considered elevated BMI as your definition of obesity, because no doubt, people with higher BMI levels carry a higher risk for obesity related complications including type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, hypertension – just to name a few. (Note that increased risk is not the same as actually having the condition!). However, when you use the actual WHO definition of obesity, namely, “accumulation of excess or abnormal fat that impairs health”, obesity is no longer just a risk factor – it is now (by definition) impairing your health, which makes it far more than just a risk factor. So while someone with a BMI of 35 may be at risk of developing obesity (not the same as having it), when their excess fat actually starts impairing their health, it de facto becomes a disease in its own right. Even then, one might argue that obesity itself is not the disease, rather the complications of obesity are the real disease. This notion is both right and wrong. There are many conditions that are both diseases in their own right as well as risk factors for other diseases or complications. Take type 2 diabetes for instance – it is both a disease in itself but also a risk factor for coronary heart disease or end-stage kidney disease. Take hypertension – a disease in its own right but also a risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. Take gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, which is also a risk factor for Barrett’s disease and oesophageal cancer. Take fatty liver disease, which is also a risk factor for cirrhosis. Gall bladder stones, which is also a risk factor for pancreatitis. Multiple sclerosis, which is also a risk factor for neurogenic bladder and pyelonephritis. The list goes on and on. So just because obesity is also a risk factor for a wide range of other medical problems, it does not make obesity any less of a disease in its own right. When excess or abnormal body fat affects health – it’s a disease. When it doesn’t, it’s at best a risk factor. That, is perhaps a subtle but important distinction. @DrSharma Toronto, ON

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Arguments Against Obesity As A Disease #8: Promotes Helplessness And Hopelessness

Continuing in my miniseries on arguments I hear against calling obesity a disease, I now discuss the objection, that doing so promotes a sense of helplessness or even hopelessness in people who carry extra weight. First of all, as noted previously, carrying extra weight is NOT the definition of obesity. For someone to have obesity they need to be carrying weight that is actually due to excess or abnormal fat tissue AND there has to be some negative impact of that fat tissue on their health – otherwise they do not have obesity!. That said, I am not sure how calling obesity on changes anything in terms of helplessness or hopelessness. Yes, the effective options to better manage obesity are limited and most people will likely struggle simply not to gain even more weight – but that fact doesn’t change whether you call obesity a disease or not. Indeed, there are many diseases for which we lack effective treatments (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis), this does not make any of them any less of a disease. As for hopelessness, just because you are diagnosed with a chronic disease doesn’t mean everything is hopeless. In fact, there are many people living with chronic diseases that are controlled and well managed (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea), who do just fine (with treatment) and go on to live long and productive lives. Obviously, we need better treatments for obesity but even without those,  people living with obesity can change the course of their disease by identifying and  addressing the root causes of their weight gain (e.g. depression, PTSD, emotional eating, etc.) and adopting behaviours, which even if not resulting in any noticeable weight loss, can markedly improve their health and well-being. Again, whether you call obesity a disease or not is completely irrelevant to whether or not you feel helpless or hopeless – the management approach would be the same, except that hopefully it will shift attention to a chronic disease strategy that requires long-term sustainable management rather than an acute intervention that is unsustainable. If we are serious about providing patients with help and hope, let us get serious about finding and providing better treatments for this disease. @DrSharma Toronto. ON

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