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Is obesity a lifestyle or a disease?

Published: Friday, June 17 2011 2:41 p.m. MDT

According to Medicare, obesity is a disease. But according to others, it's actually a lifestyle.

April Herndon, an associate professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota, is one person who is tackling the issue.

Psychology Today writer Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, asked Herndon to address some obesity questions. In regards to whether it's a disease or a lifestyle choice, Herndon said, "The truth is that obesity is so complicated that most doctors and scientists will admit that the answer may change for each person or (gasp!) that we just don't know."

A disease is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms."

So, is obesity a disease? The International Journal of Obesity doesn't think so. It says, "Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) or percentage body fat in excess of some cut-off value, … lacks a universal concomitant group of symptoms or signs and the impairment of function which characterize disease according to traditional definitions."

Herndon seems to support this idea, too, when she says that obesity isn't really a disease but raises the risk of certain diseases or conditions. She gives the example that obesity may not be a health problem "in and of itself" when she says, "We know that women are more at risk for breast cancer, but we don't consider being female a disease. We know that having light-colored skin and light-colored eyes increases one's risk for skin cancer, but we don't consider lighter-skinned people diseased. Obesity is similar."

Focus Taiwan listed six obesity-related diseases that were ranked among the 10 leading causes of death. The six are cancer, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and kidney disease.

Obesity rates increase with each year. The New York Times published an article in 2010 that said nearly 34 percent of adults are obese, which is more than double the percentage of 30 years ago.

Some people believe that the increase has come with changing times and things like television, video games and the Internet.

WebMD said, "Every hour children play video games or watch television may double their risk of obesity, a new study suggests."

In 2010, Reuters said statistics showed 32 percent of children were either overweight or obese. It cautioned parents to "keep highly processed foods out of the house, limit time spent at the TV and computer and set a good example with their own exercise and eating habits."

Sarah Klein for CNN said that "eating dinner together, making sure they get enough sleep, and limiting TV" may help to lower weight.

Culture may factor into the weight problem, too. The Weight Control information Network said, "Foods specific to certain cultures that are prepared with a lot of fat or salt may hamper one's weight-loss efforts. Research has also shown that individuals originally from countries other than the United States have difficulty adjusting to the calorie-rich foods offered here."

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