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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Pregnancy Guide Update: Obesity a disease?

The American Medical Association House of Delegates declared obesity a disease
last month. Is this good for maternal and child health?  For public health? 
 
It’s not new
In 1995 the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute called obesity a “complex
multifactoral chronic disease”. Ten years earlier, almost 30 years ago now,
NIH called prevention and treatment of obesity a national medical priority.
With 90 million Americans now officially obese, it seems few clinicians got the
memo.
 
Obesity prevention not a priority in maternity care
In researching issues of weight gain in pregnancy for  the update of the
Beginnings Pregnancy Guide, I found that weighing is still the only procedure in
early prenatal care that has shown any impact on outcomes. And yet it has
become uncommon for a pregnant woman to be weighed at prenatal visits or
when being admitted to a hospital for birth. Prenatal care providers have reported
they seldom weigh pregnant women or discuss weight for fear the conversation will interfere with their patient/provider relationship. Others said they do not know how to calculate BMI. They also must not know about the many BMI calculatorsthat will do it for them. One can only hope that calling obesity a disease will change these attitudes. 
 
Healthy mothers, healthy babies. Fat mothers, fat babies
The issue in pregnancy is that a mother with an excess of fat cells produces a baby
with an excess of  fat cells. So we are building obesity and the attendant health issues into the next generation.
 
ACEs -Adverse childhood experiences - witnessing or experiencing interpersonal violence is closely related to obesity. A woman fearing abuse may hide in obesity, intentionally making herself unattractive to protect herself. Is that a disease? With medical treatment, many such women have lost weight, and gained it right back. That’s how the lifelong effects of ACEs were discovered.
 
Other mothers have said it doesn’t matter if they gain too much in pregnancy since they are just going to get pregnant again; the weight can come off after that. Only it rarely does.
 
Turning people into patients
Google “obesity disease”. The first thing that pops up is ad ad for weight loss surgery. This may be more telling than official statements.
 
Especially when we consider the Forbes June 28 report that the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health, the group appointed to address the question, advised against declaring obesity a disease. But the delegates chose ignore their own advisors.
 
We have to ask, what was so compelling?
Perhaps it is the implementation of the Affordable Care Act that will bring healthcare coverage to millions of Americans previously excluded from the healthcare system. At least a third of them are obese. Now they can be patients.
According to CDC 35.7% of Americans are obese, 49.5% of African Americans, 40% of Mexican Americans. Rates vary widely by state. Find your state rate at
http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html  Now all those people are diseased
and in need of medical treatment.
 
Calling obesity a disease, again, could draw attention to related health issues, but it hasn’t in 20 years.  It could result in better maternity care, but the declaration is unlikely to improve clinicians communication and counseling skills.  It could spark a Kennedy-style physical fitness craze, but that entails behavior change, and the same communication issues.  It could increase research on obesity, but NIH already has a Strategic Plan for Obesity Research and funds nearly a billion dollars worth of studies annually. Grants.nih.gov lists 49 obesity-related research solicitations currently open for submission of grant applications. 
 
Only one thing seems certain, making obesity a disease will increase medical treatments and costs, and revenue to AMA constituents.
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