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Group Claims New AMA Policy Sanctions Discrimination Based on Body Size

The medical community has been divided for years over whether obesity should be classified as a disease.

(Image: Doctor measures via Shutterstock)

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A human rights organization known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) last month voiced strong criticisms of a new American Medical Association (AMA) policy announced June 18 recognizing obesity as a disease.

A statement by AMA board member Patrice Harris said the policy “will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans.”

“The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity,” Harris said.

NAAFA sees things differently. “The AMA just put its official stamp of approval on the widespread weight bias of physicians,” said Dr. Deb Burgard, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and childhood obesity and a member of NAAFA’s advisory board.

The AMA declined to comment on criticisms from the group, which has 16,000 members, but a report by the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health recommended against the decision, saying “The disease label is likely to improve health outcomes for some individuals, but may worsen outcomes for others.” The council of 11 medical doctors and one medical student cited unresolved scientific complexities and other drawbacks, including the possibility that increased government financing of research into medical treatments for obesity as a disease could reduce funding for public health prevention programs. The medical community has been divided for years over whether obesity, often regarded as a condition or a risk factor for disease, should be classified as a disease.

“Economic greed and weight stigma have trumped science and the advice of the AMA’s own expert committee,” said Burgard. AMA’s policies do not have legal standing but can influence reimbursement under health insurance plans, according to the online medical news site Medscape.

NAAFA called for the policy to be reversed and for the AMA to meet with a more diverse set of stakeholders. NAAFA spokeswoman Peggy Howell said AMA should consult with scientists, doctors and other experts who promote a set of health care strategies known to some as “health at every size,” which maintains that body size alone is not an accurate health indicator and teaches patients to read their bodies’ cues, eat intuitively and healthfully, and add enjoyable physical activity to their routines.

“We need to be taking the focus off of body weight and looking at, instead of body weight as a marker for health, looking at all our other health markers,” said Howell. “Not all fat people are diseased like the AMA has declared.”

NAAFA says patients with high body weights are among the least likely to seek medical treatment because of the discrimination they face.

Scientific studies have pointed to a wide range of factors contributing to obesity including lifestyle, genetics and environmental pollution.

The AMA announced several other new policies June 18 including its support of a ban on marketing energy drinks to children, its opposition to a ban prohibiting gay men from donating blood, and a call for stronger legislation to prevent health insurers and employers from discriminating based on genetic information.

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