The American Medical Association on Tuesday classified obesity as a disease that should be treated and prevented.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” AMA board member Patrice Harris in a statement.
Obesity is different from simply being overweight, Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told NBC News.
An overweight person’s Body Mass Index — a height-to-weight ratio that determines body composition — lies at between 25 and 29.9. A BMI of 30.0 or more indicates obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Fat cells secrete chemicals that can raise blood pressure, cause inflammation and harden the arteries. The CDC also stresses that obesity can increase the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or certain cancers. Women also can become increasingly likely to be infertile with weight gain.
A vote on public health by the AMA isn’t law, but similar rulings on other public health issues have caused policy changes in the past, NBC reported. When in the 1960s, the U.S. Surgeon General determined that smoking could cause disease, bans on who could smoke and where led to a 20 percent decrease in smoking now.
The AMA said “more widespread recognition of obesity as a disease” might make employers cover obesity treatment and discriminate less based on weight.
“It changes the way society looks at things,” Joyner told NBC. “It gives people maybe a new set of tools.”