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Experts: Obesity not a single disease, more likely a combination of diseases

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 8:00 p.m. MDT

In this June 17, 2013 photo, two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. In its biggest policy change on weight and health to date, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease. Some experts now believe obesity can be several diseases tied together by the symptom of excess body fat. (Toby Talbot, Associated Press) In this June 17, 2013 photo, two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. In its biggest policy change on weight and health to date, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease. Some experts now believe obesity can be several diseases tied together by the symptom of excess body fat. (Toby Talbot, Associated Press)

A growing number of experts are now classifying obesity as a compilation of diseases, rather than a single disease.

In June, the American Medical Association announced it would recognize obesity as a disease rather than a "major public health problem." The change in classification has led more experts to look at obesity in a different way.

Some experts believe the term obesity is now more similar to the term cancer in that cancer covers numerous conditions when abnormal cells divide uncontrollably. Like cancer, obesity is not a single disease but can be several diseases tied together by the symptom of excess body fat.

Nikhil Dhurandhar, a researcher and vice president of the Obesity Society, found that the presence of certain viral antibodies in the bloodstream of humans could be linked to increased body weight. Although Dhurandhar does not believe obesity is infectious in nature, he believes the discovery of the "fat bug" could be a breakthrough in how people perceive obesity and how it is treated. Dhurandhar says that traditional methods to help obesity, such as diet and exercise, might not be the best option for everyone.

"What good does a starvation diet do if obesity is caused by a virus?" he asked on "Good Morning America." "We've focused almost all our resources on the so-called 'Big Two' of diet and exercise for more than 50 years and it hasn't helped. We will have to move beyond 'eat less and move more' if we want to make progress."

Scientists have identified at least 84 potential contributors to obesity, ranging from biological to psychological to environmental.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children and teens are obese. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated to be $147 billion, or $1,429 higher than medical costs for people of normal weight.

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that how people believe obesity is caused could affect their own waistlines. People who believed obesity was caused solely from lack of exercise were more likely to weigh more than those who blamed a poor diet or genetics.

"Across multiple studies, we found the first evidence that people generally have two different lay theories about what causes obesity, and that these beliefs impact people's actual likelihood of being overweight," wrote the study authors, led by Brent McFerran, a marketing professor and social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Christopher Ochner, director of research development and administration at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told "Good Morning America" that the reasons for weight gain vary greatly for each individual and the precise formula for energy balance through diet and exercise is nearly impossible to determine.

According to a recently released report, Utah tied with Montana as the seventh least obese state in the nation. The report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future", showed Utah's obesity rates increased from 23.8 percent in 2011 to 24.3 percent in 2012.

Utah was ranked No. 1 in the country for the lowest rate of childhood obesity, with 11.6 percent of obese 10- to 17-year-olds.

Email: crenouard@deseretnews.com

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