In 2013, the American Medical Association classified obesity as an official disease. Good call? Maybe, but the ‘cure’ has nothing to do with medicine — and that’s a good thing.
For the past two years, obesity has become a condition that needs to be treated medically, by doctors, and with appropriate “interventions.”
Which means drug treatment and surgery.
It’s hard to dismiss the profit motive in the vote taken by the membership of the American Medical Association, despite the fact that the organization’s own Committee on Science and Public Health had studied the matter and recommended that obesity not be labeled a disease.
Even without a medical degree, one can understand why. For starters, obesity doesn’t really adhere to the classic definition of a disease. There are no universal symptoms, it’s not always harmful and in many cases of even significantly overweight people, there are no recognizable physiological disorders.
It also doesn't fit the definition of a medical disease. It has no symptoms, and it’s not always harmful—in fact, for some people in some circumstances, it’s been known to be protective rather than destructive.
For another, a disease, by definition, involves the body’s normal functioning gone wrong. But
As Harriett Brown, a Syracuse University journalism professor and author (“Body of Truth”), stated in a recent Atlantic magazine article, “Many experts think obesity — the body efficiently storing calories as fat — is a normal adaptation to a set of circumstances (periods of famine) that’s held true for much of human history. In that case, the bodies that tend toward obesity aren’t diseased; they’re actually more efficient than naturally lean bodies.”
Couldn’t agree more, and in fact, just this week I referenced a remarkable archaeological find that confirmed our prehistoric ancestors’ reliance on meat and fat from animals they hunted (see, “The Real Caveman Diet”).
Now, in modern times, we have an overabundance of food. No more spending days tracking game animals, or — god forbid — missing a day or two worth of meals when a hunting party came up empty. Food is now available 24/7, while at the same time our lifestyles have become dramatically more sedentary. That’s an evolutionary two-fer which human physiology has so far been unable to accommodate, hence the current obesity crisis, exacerbated as it is by an ill-advised switch from animal foods high in protein to convenience foods high in simple carbohydrates.
Seeking a solution
There is a rationale behind the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease, however. It truly has become a public health problem and is a precursor to other bona fide diseases, such as diabetes. As an official disease, the medical establishment (theoretically) can get busy developing effective treatments for the condition — not that there’s any shortage of miracle cures, magic prescriptions and “guaranteed” remedies for the approximately 100 million Americans who could stand to drop a few billion pounds.
But whether or not those of us packing around excess poundage consider ourselves to be “diseased,” most of us who are significantly overweight don’t enjoy it. Excess weight isn’t viewed as a curious side effect of primitive human physiology, but rather as a debilitating affliction we’d rather do without.
So the question, for laypeople as well as doctors, is not how to classify obesity, but how to avoid and/or overcome it.
Dietary changes top the list, to be sure. Simply avoiding the endless array of pre-packaged, ready-to-eat, processed products lining supermarket shelves and filling up one’s cart from the perimeter of the store would be an excellent place to start. The amount of refined carbohydrates in virtually all convenience foods is astonishing, and its impact is on display anywhere large numbers of Americans congregate.
The meat, poultry and dairy foods that activists and dieticians alike are quick to condemn are, in fact, part of the solution, not the problem.
Here’s the other factor to which AMA and most nutritional authorities either offer lip service or blatantly ignore: exercise, although not the walking/jogging//Zumba programs people convince themselves will melt away the pounds. The antidote to obesity is less about ratcheting up the cardio and more about embracing serious weight training.
That’s the only way to build muscle mass, and although there is significant variability both individually and culturally as to “ideal” body composition, it’s a proven fact that gaining muscle mass improves the utilization of all those carbs we love to consume.
Strength training builds muscle tissue, unlike endurance training, which tends to trigger a catabolic response that actually breaks down muscle tissue. Every additional ounce of muscle fiber as a percentage of body mass enhances the proper processing of that flood of glucose occurring after a high-carb meal, since glycogen is created, stored and utilized as the primary fuel for muscular activity.
Weight training increases insulin responsiveness, avoids harmful spikes in blood sugar levels and obviates the storage of excess glucose as long-chain fats deposited in exactly the areas of the body where we don’t want them.
Obesity may or may not be a disease, but unlike some other chronic conditions that plague modern societies, however, there is a cure: Eat meat and lift weights.
It worked for cavemen (and women), and it’ll work for us.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator