Is obesity a disease or a lifestyle choice?

According to the World Health Organization, obesity is now classed as a disease. With as many as a third or more of all adults being so overweight that their health is affected, it’s no wonder that the powers that be are at panic stations. It is estimated that by 2020, there will be more overweight people than “normal” people and that statistic sadly includes not just adults but children too.

o label obesity as a disease mean that medical resources are more likely to be directed to treating the symptoms rather than the cause..

While it’s great that the WHO has taken such an interest in obesity, I have to question the labelling of obesity as a disease. There is no doubt that being significantly overweight is bad for just about every aspect of your health but surely obesity and its associated conditions is the SYMPTOM of overeating and too little activity. To label obesity as a disease mean that medical resources are more likely to be directed to treating the symptoms rather than the cause the cause being eating too much, eating the wrong foods and being too sedentary.

This attitude to obesity and its disease status is indicative of Western medicine in general. Western medicine is, by and large, allopathic. This simply means that when you go to see your doctor, he or she will ask you what is wrong and give you medication that controls your symptoms. Got high blood pressure? You’ll be prescribed beta blockers, diuretics and ACE inhibitors. Can’t sleep? You’ll be offered medication that helps knock you out for the night. Feeling stressed? No worries – there is a medication for that too. None of these medical interventions deal with the cause of what ails you – they simply control your symptoms. Come off the medication, the symptoms return. The condition has not been cured but merely managed with pharmaceuticals.

Conversely, Eastern medicine is more homeopathic in nature. Where Western medicine treats symptoms, Eastern medicine treats causes. A homeopathic approach to lowering blood pressure would probably combine diet modifications, exercise, and stress management techniques to address the cause of the symptoms and not just how your body responds to problems within.

Of course, sometimes Western medicine does have the answers and if I was ever diagnosed with a serious disease or suffered a traumatic injury, I’d put my faith in my doctor 100 percent but as for treating obesity medically – I have serious misgivings about that.

Firstly, you can’t “catch” obesity. While some unlucky individuals do have a predilection for gaining weight easier than others, this does not explain why so many individuals are overweight. I remember watching a science news programme a few years ago on which a revered geneticist announced he had discovered the “fat gene” that was responsible for the current obesity crisis.

Hundreds of hopeful overweight people waddled into his practice to see if they had this gene so they could blame their fatness on something other than their lifestyles. Incredibly, out of the hundreds tested, only a statistically insignificant number actually possessed the required genetic marker. The disappointment of the test subjects was palpable and as one fellow said, “Guess it’s my fault I’m overweight then”. Damn straight.

Labelling obesity as a disease removes culpability. Humans love nothing more than to say, “it’s not my fault – I’m a victim of circumstances beyond my control”. The truth of the matter is, in the vast majority of cases, the responsibility for being overweight lies with the person who IS overweight. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances like injury that prevents exercise or essential drugs that promote fat storage but these circumstances are far rarer than most of us realise. Gluttony and laziness are, however, far too common.

Then, consider this – if obesity is a disease, drug manufacturers are going to be pulling out all the stops to find a cure. They’ll be scouring the rain forests, exploring the ocean depths and synthesising lord-knows what in secret laboratories all around the world in search of the magic bullet that will “cure” obesity. As praiseworthy as these endeavours are, don’t forget – the winner of this particular race will make so much money from their discovery that their children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children will never have to work a day in their lives unless they want to! The wonder drug that cures obesity is the pot of gold at the end of the Leprechaun’s rainbow to the power of a hundred.

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Also, don’t forget, many governments are going to throw huge amounts of money at funding the search for the cure to obesity and while I believe that’s misguided, I can understand why – obesity is a huge drain on the resources of any country’s health care system and the sooner it’s eradicated (if that is at all possible) the better.

So if obesity isn’t really a disease and shouldn’t be treated with drugs, what is the solution? I hate to sound like a broken record but it’s simply a matter of eating less, eating better and moving more.

While simple enough on paper, the nuts and bolts of these interventions can become incredibly complex when you start to scratch below the surface. What type of exercise is best, what should your heart rate be, how many times a week should you do it, how long should each session last, what about weight training, should I go low carb or low fat, should I eat three larger meals or six smaller ones, should I try intermittent fasting or what about the Paleo diet? Talk about not being able to see the woods for the trees!

At the end of the day, while some interventions may be slightly more effective than others, eating less, eating better and moving more is the answer and sometimes “experts” make it all so complex-sounding that individuals looking for answers end up suffering paralysis by analysis and doing nothing to change their diets of lifestyles. If you want to see BIG changes, you have to make BIG changes and while knowledge is power, action is more powerful still. Like internet phenomenon and fitness personality CT Fletcher says (and I paraphrase because he swears – a lot!) “Forget range of motion; just get your BUTT in motion!” Oftentimes, simple is best.

Turn back the calendar 50 years or so and the UK was counting the cost of the second World War. As tragic as that period of history was, from the standpoint of controlling obesity – it was nirvana. Food and petrol were strictly limited by rationing and as a result, there was not as much food to eat, people had to walk more and jobs were generally more physical. It was like a forced diet and exercise programme for the entire nation! The result – very few overweight individuals and obesity was virtually unheard of.

Did you know that typically, we spend 32 years of our lives dieting!?

Fast forward and per capita, British people are amongst the biggest spenders on “health foods” and leisure activities in the world and gym membership is at their highest. Yet, the country is getting fatter year on year. We know more than ever about food and exercise but knowing and doing are completely different things. Did you know that typically, we spend 32 years of our lives dieting!? That’s a depressing statistic that goes to show that modern interventions aren’t doing jack for the obesity crisis.

What is the answer to the obesity crisis? Man that’s a complex question to answer but this is my take on it. Along with eat less, eat better and move more becoming a national slogan and drummed into every child and adult across the country, I’d like to see free educational programmes that are compulsory for anyone overweight. I’d introduce penalties for medical treatment for anyone purposely overweight requiring non-essential medical treatment, a tax on sugar and junk foods in general, compulsory two-mile traffic free areas around schools so kids have to walk more, using Smartphone technology to ensure everyone does at least 10,000 steps of walking a day, gyms in all places of work and education, excess baggage charges on planes for obese people that’ll do for now.

Of course, I know that many of these interventions could be seen as being draconian, big brother-esque and oppressive but it’s clear the touchy-feely approach to curing obesity isn’t working. The carrot approach has proved ineffective so maybe it’s time for the stick?

Bottom line – whatever is being done at the moment to eradicate obesity is ineffective. The solution is complex, requires education and effort and a paradigm shift if we are ever going to reduce the ever growing obesity statistics. The one thing I am sure of is that labelling obesity as a disease and looking for drugs to treat the symptoms is like putting the cart before the horse and about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe!

 

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