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Jerry Davich: Obesity is more decision than disease

This is billboard obesity Interstate 80/94. | Sun-Times Media

This is the billboard on obesity on Interstate 80/94. | Sun-Times Media

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Is obesity a disease or a decision?

Last week, the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease, an announcement that now defines nearly 80 million U.S. adults and 12 million children. What this means, in part, is that this massive demographic of people — one in three Americans — has a medical condition requiring medical treatment of some kind.

The organization rejected advice from its own expert panel and voted to approve the debatable decision, one that I disagree with. The leading doctors group says their action would help these Americans get useful treatments while it puts pressure on health insurance companies to reimburse physicians for tackling and treating obesity.

“The AMA’s decision essentially makes diagnosis and treatment of obesity a physician’s professional obligation,” states an Associated Press story. “As such, it should encourage primary care physicians to get over their discomfort about raising weight concerns with obese patients.”

I’ve wanted to address this touchy issue since I drove past a catchy billboard on Interstate 65 last year, stating, “Obesity is a disease. Not a decision.” Have you seen it, too?

The billboard is an advertisement for Community Hospital in Munster and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, citing a website to get help for battling obesity, NotADecison.org.

Since first passing that billboard, and another similar one on Interstate 80/94, I disagreed with its message. I remember saying to myself, “No it’s not. Obesity is a decision.” Generally speaking, that is.

Having a history of weight issues in my past, I understand this is not a black and white issue. The answer is somewhere in between a disease and a decision. But I feel this is an overreach by the AMA, sending the message that obesity is more a medical condition than a lifestyle choice.

Is it both? Yes, in many cases. But too many of us already rationalize our irresponsible and unhealthy choices or behaviors, blaming them on any number of excuses. The AMA’s announcement only adds to that already lengthy list, I feel.

With the recent eye-opening news that Indiana is now the 8th fattest state in the nation, the obesity rate for Hoosiers has ballooned by 60 percent since 1995. Two out of three Hoosiers, at least, are now overweight or obese.

I don’t blame fast food joints, value-rated menus, or any other marketing campaigns for our collective obesity. I blame us. Period.

Yet studies have shown that the majority of obese patients in this state and country have never been told by a health professional they need to lose weight.

“A result not only of some doctors’ reluctance to offend, but of their unwillingness to open a lengthy consultation for which they might not be reimbursed,” the AP story stated.

In other words, keep shoving food into your mouths and doctors will instead deal with the gluttony of obesity-related illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various cancers. Treatment of such legitimate “diseases” costs our country more than $150 billion a year, with predictions to skyrocket much higher, according to federal data.

Last week, one of my favorite actors died of an apparent heart attack, accompanied with whispers from his friends that the lifestyle choice of obesity may have been a factor.

James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano, died suddenly while vacationing in Rome. The 51-year-old, three-time Emmy winner often joked about his chronic weight problem, and I’m wondering if his death raised any red flags to others with weight problems? Probably not, though it did with me.

On the flip side, this new “disease” label for obesity may backfire by stigmatizing an already stigmatized group of people, some experts say. On a broader scale, will it empower more doctors to now address this sensitive subject? Will it prompt more insurance companies to provide coverage for weight loss surgery and treatments?

I posed these questions and this issue on social media last week, sparking immediate and emotional feedback from readers.

“Jerry, surely you can’t be saying people should be responsible for their decisions and their actions?” wrote Derek Pierce of Portage, using sarcasm to make his point. “After all, this is America we live in, a ‘it’s not my fault’ society. Everything is either a disease or I was born that way.”

Irene Conley of DeMotte said, “I believe it is an addiction that started with a decision, just like drugs.”

Mark Neely of Chesterton said, “Doctors want to label everything a disease. They even have a shift-work disorder disease now.”

Peggy Byarlay-Tenorio said it’s both a disease and decision: “Some of us like to indulge and some people have a medical condition that just can’t be helped.”

Brittany Shebesh of Lake Station said it’s all about the health care industry making more money.

“If it’s a disease, they can ‘cure’ it with pills. Cha-ching!” she wrote. “Look how much money people throw away every year on diet pills.

Other readers cited prescription medications which cause uncontrollable weight gain, another factor to consider. Yes, it’s a multi-dimensional topic with many aspects to consider. But I still feel that we, as a society, already have enough excuses and rationalizations for our poor, even stupid, decisions.

For instance, as I write this column I’m wondering what to eat for lunch. Although I have fresh fruit, bottled water, and low-cal frozen entrees on hand, I’m going to order yet another pizza and then get a dollar-sized Coke.

In my case, the only thing diseased is my stupid, unhealthy decisions. How about you?

Summertime reminder

No one loves summer more than I do, but there’s always a dark downside to its arrival. Drownings. Violence. Murders. Mischief. And mayhem, for instance.

Soon enough, violence on the streets and criminal mischief will rise with these seasonal temps. And all too soon, we’ll hear of the first drowning in Lake Michigan, typically a teen who will underestimate the lake’s dangerous riptides and whose family lost sight for “just a few seconds,” as we often hear from previous drownings.

Helter swelter, folks, let’s be careful out there this summer.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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