Obesity is a disease? Fat chance!
My concern is that this is about perception and creating a culture of victimhood
Two weeks ago, my six-year-old ran up to me on a beach and asked: “Why does that little girl over there look like that?”
I’d noticed the girl because she was around the same age, and because she was obese – but I found the question hard to answer. “She may have a medical condition,” I told her. “Or her parents may not feed her healthy food.”
I’d already decided which it was (having spotted the biscuit boxes in their picnic bag) and, in part to assuage my guilt at this judgment, embarked on a speech filled with trademark parental hypocrisy about how important it is not to judge others – a speech my daughter soon tired of and ran off.
Anyone who has ever been seriously overweight will tell you they feel those myriad judgments being made about them daily. That’s when they’re not hearing them outright, like British broadcaster Dame Jenni Murray, who, at the weekend, confessed at a conference about the benefits of metabolic surgery at King’s College London that she had regularly been abused in her car and on the street.
“Sometimes it was ‘fat’ – other very vulgar words – ‘cow’, and it would happen a lot,” she said.
“It was overt, it was distressing and it was infuriating.”
Murray – who has lost 31.8kg with the help of a gastric band – concluded her speech by saying she believed “it’s time for obesity to be recognised as a disease and not a condition”.
I’m curious to know what her reasoning is. Because whether it’s a condition or a disease, a country such as Britain, the third fattest nation in Europe, has obesity costing its health service about £10bn a year and an estimated 50% of the country set to be obese by 2045, if current trends are not halted – so one would hope that its seriousness is beyond debate. And there certainly hasn't been any decline in US obesity statistics since 2013, when, after much discussion, it was recognised as a disease.
My concern, therefore, is that this is about perception. That if obesity were a disease rather than “an abnormal state of health that interferes with normal feelings of well-being”, it would turn sufferers into victims who, far from being abused in the street, should be treated with kindness and compassion.
And there’s zero irony intended here: nobody should suffer the kind of abuse Murray has been subjected to, and we all deserve kindness and compassion. But I don’t believe seeing yourself as a victim – and having free will and discipline removed from the equation – is very helpful in terms of recovery.
Indeed, it could have the opposite effect, with “sufferers” adopting a fatalistic attitude towards something they believe they have no control over. Take control, and you reap the rewards.
But once you abdicate control, there’s nothing to do but blame, is there? So you blame supermarkets for leaving sweets by the counter where you’re more or less forced to buy them for your kids, and you blame Kellogg’s for making cereals with three lifetimes’ worth of the recommended daily sugar intake in a single bowl. Then there are the cafés and fast-food outlets that refuse to tell you just how fattening that triple-decker cheeseburger really is (answer: very). Only, as of this month, the British department of health is pushing ahead with plans to compel eateries to state the number of calories in every meal, in a bid to “help people make informed and healthy choices for themselves”.
So I really don’t think we can blame lack of information any more, do you? Lack of personal responsibility, on the other hand, could be one reason.
When the US was debating the issue, the website ProCon quoted Marianne J Legato, professor emerita of clinical medicine at Columbia: “Obesity is a complex entity that can have many causes; some are endocrine (like thyroid malfunction or hyperfunctioning of the adrenal gland – Cushing’s syndrome), but often the condition is from a combination of inactivity and overeating.”
If only Legato had been sitting beside me that day on the beach.
– © The Daily Telegraph