The Health Effects of Declaring Obesity a Disease

I’m certain I’ve messed up in many ways while raising my children… and I’m also certain my children will explain those failures to me in great detail as they get older. But I’ve worked hard at parenting and have tried to give my kids the tools they need to get through life, including a sense of self-responsibility.

They will suffer defeats, disappointments, and setbacks, but they get to choose how they deal with each situation.

Sometimes people create their own problems, and sometimes problems are simply a result of bad circumstances. Regardless, all of us have to get on with the business of living by doing the best we can.

So it would be really helpful — to me personally, as I raise my children, and to our nation — if the U.S. government and various public and private associations would stop trying to help people pass the blame for bad outcomes… especially when those outcomes are self-created.

Last summer, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity a “multi-metabolic and hormonal disease state.” This has got to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. I can’t imagine anyone chooses to gain a lot of weight, but just about everyone struggles to stay on a decent diet and exercise regimen… particularly as we get older. However, it’s still a lifestyle choice for most people.

Now, before I go further and invite hate mail and angry phone calls, let me categorize my comments. I am not, I repeat, NOT, talking about normal weight gain that comes from aging. Carrying an extra 20 or 25 pounds is part of getting older.

I’m also NOT talking about weight gain from medical issues caused by thyroid problems or other medical conditions.

I’m talking about the pounds put on by making the casual, consistent decision to eat a little more than we should or more of the bad things we like while refraining from anything that remotely resembles exercise. These are choices, not conditions, and that is what makes the AMA’s decision so outrageous.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette, both professors at the University of Richmond, wrote that the AMA declaration was a good idea because it provides a clear warning that being fat is a health risk. I wonder how many people didn’t know that.

However, the authors wondered about the psychological ramifications of the AMA’s statement, so they created an experiment…

They took 700 people and randomly assigned them articles to read. One group read articles that declared being fat is a disease, while the other group read articles about the benefits of weight loss and were exposed to news coverage about how being fat is not a disease. Then both groups were given a survey about their attitudes toward weight loss and eating behavior.

Amazingly (sarcastically said), overweight participants felt better about themselves when they read the AMA findings that obesity is a disease. However, after the experiment, these same participants tended to continue with bad eating habits and to believe that trying to lose weight through diet and exercise didn’t work.

Brilliant.

If obesity is a disease, no one is responsible. We get fat because of some combination of genes and hormones. It has nothing to do with cake, cookies, pasta, soda, candy, or pie. Nope. There’s also no connection to walking, running, biking, or swimming. It just happens.

Being absolved of personal responsibility, as Professors Hoyt and Burnett found out, leads to reinforcement of the bad decisions that led to getting fat in the first place. And why wouldn’t it?

Eating is pretty darn enjoyable, and exercise is a pain (no pun intended). If I find myself with an expanding waistline, I can simply go to the doctor so he can treat my “condition.”

Oh, and by the way, my treatment will probably cost more than I pay in health insurance premiums, so what I’m really counting on is a little help from everyone else.

And therein lies the rub.

My issue here isn’t anyone’s weight, which would be silly. It’s the idea that the cost of dealing with bad outcomes from choices that any of us make can somehow be transferred to others.

When people aren’t personally responsible for bad outcomes, the cost of remediation or treatment typically falls on society. In this case, it shows up in the form of medical costs, but it could be anything, even financial.

A long line of bankers testified before Congress that the housing meltdown wasn’t their fault.

True, they disregarded lending standards… and sure, they created an entire industry (credit default swaps) that was meant to do nothing more than skirt around regulations on insurance. Eventually, that strategy required trillions of dollars in bailout funds and support. But clearly, no one was personally responsible… at least according to them.

On the other side, many people bought houses that cost well beyond what they could afford, since the market always goes up (again, said sarcastically). Existing homeowners took out massive home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) because their bank told them to.

Just like the bankers, none of these people were responsible for their actions, either. It was simply circumstance.

All of this comes back to the same thing: privatizing gains while socializing losses. Society (read here, taxpayers) didn’t make any person eat to the point of becoming obese, but now that it’s a disease, we’ll have to pay for it.

Bankers weren’t required to underwrite idiotic loans, and borrowers weren’t forced to buy too much house or take out HELOCs. And yet, we as taxpayers are certainly paying for those decisions.

If we continue to foster the notion that bad decisions can be pushed onto someone else — in health, finance, education, etc. — then we’re setting up the nation for failure, one person at a time.

Eventually our problems will become so big, we can’t possibly contain them or treat them.

If all issues are socialized and we don’t allow for personal failure, or for decisions that lead to failure, then the state will have to normalize outcomes. As many a nation has shown in the past, this isn’t possible. In this situation, not everyone is raised up; instead, most are simply pushed down.

That’s not the country I want to live in, and not the one I want for my kids.


Rodney

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Categories: Health Care

About Author

Rodney Johnson works closely with Harry Dent to study how people spend their money as they go through predictable stages of life, how that spending drives our economy and how you can use this information to invest successfully in any market. Rodney began his career in financial services on Wall Street in the 1980s with Thomson McKinnon and then Prudential Securities. He started working on projects with Harry in the mid-1990s. He’s a regular guest on several radio programs such as America’s Wealth Management, Savvy Investor Radio, and has been featured on CNBC, Fox News and Fox Business’s “America’s Nightly Scorecard, where he discusses economic trends ranging from the price of oil to the direction of the U.S. economy. He holds degrees from Georgetown University and Southern Methodist University.