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What if you were told that many of your loved ones had been struck by a life-threatening disease that would take years to recover from, if ever? What if you found that this debilitating scourge afflicted more than one in five Australians? And that it was set to take more lives every year?
If the new announcement from the American Medical Association (AMA) is anything to go by, then this is more than just a hypothetical situation. The leading group of medical professionals in the US formally defined obesity as a disease this month, serving up a smorgasbord of issues that the wider community has been left to debate.
In a written statement following the decision, AMA president Ardis Hoven said the new classification was about changing perspectives.
“The purpose of the policy is to advance obesity treatment and prevention,” she said.
“It issues a call for a paradigm shift in the way the medical community tackles this complicated issue.”
For the AMA, it was not so much raising awareness about ‘catching’ obesity as a disease, but a warning that the consequences of obesity were just as serious and potentially fatal as other dreaded diseases.
“While a complex variety of factors can cause obesity, the disease itself leaves people vulnerable to many of the same health consequences, including two of the nation’s most devastating ones: cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Ms Hoven wrote.
“The toll of these diseases upon our nation—both in terms of individual patients’ health and collective health care costs—is staggering.”
The biggest effect this new classification will have on Australia is the way obesity is treated by government. Time and time again, experts have called out our Australian living environment as obesogenic – that is, one that encourages us to become overweight and obese, and makes it increasingly difficult to remain healthy. Reminding state-level organisations of the significance of obesity as a disease may lead to changes in the way obesogenic factors are treated in legislation. Perhaps it could mean greater restrictions on junk food advertising, or nutritional labelling. Or it could mean better health services to help people recover from the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. While it is not yet officially considered a disease in our country, experts have discussed the possibility, and it has been called an epidemic many times.
Thinking about obesity as a disease should not be an excuse to give up hope for change. Just as its development is gradual, so is its treatment. But losing as little as 5 kilograms can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes.
Even if small lifestyle changes have seen no effect, there are ways to return to health and lower your risk of other associated diseases. Bariatric surgery has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to improve your weight, and should be seriously considered if you have a BMI over 35.