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Is obesity a disease?


BACKGROUND: There is disagreement about whether obesity should be considered a disease, as can be seen by inconsistent usage and the advocacy of conflicting views in popular and scholarly articles. However, neither writers who refer to obesity as a disease nor those who question whether it is a disease have generally provided a definition of disease and then offered evidence that obesity does or does not fit the definition.

METHOD: The characteristics of obesity were examined to determine whether they fit the common and recurring elements of definitions of disease taken from a sample of authoritative English language dictionaries.

FINDINGS AND INTERPRETATIONS: Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) or percentage body fat in excess of some cut-off value, though clearly a threat to health and longevity, lacks a universal concomitant group of symptoms or signs and the impairment of function which characterize disease according to traditional definitions. While it might nevertheless be possible to achieve a social consensus that it is a disease despite its failure to fit traditional models of disease, the merits of such a goal are questionable. Labeling obesity a disease may be expedient but it is not a necessary step in a campaign to combat obesity and it may be interpreted as self-serving advocacy without a sound scientific basis.

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This work was supported in part by a grant from the NIH (P30DK26687) to the New York Obesity Research Center.

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Correspondence to S Heshka.

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Heshka, S., Allison, D. Is obesity a disease?. Int J Obes 25, 1401–1404 (2001).

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  • disease
  • nomenclature
  • disease classification

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