As I was lifting weights yesterday, a thought occurred to me. If obesity is considered to be a chronic disease (and it is), why do we talk about it so differently than other chronic diseases?
Type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity. Each of these is considered to be a chronic disease that, while having genetic components, is largely lifestyle-based. That is, the choices we make about what (and how much) we eat, whether (and how much) we exercise, whether (and how much) alcohol we drink, whether we smoke, how much we sleep and how we deal with stress can tip the scales toward preventing disease or developing disease.
Here’s a little quiz for you. Which one of these is not like the others?
  1. You have diabetes.
  2. You have high blood pressure.
  3. You have high cholesterol.
  4. You have heart disease.
  5. You are obese.
Huh? If obesity is a chronic, lifestyle-based disease like all those others, why is it the only disease that we stamp on people like a label through our word choices. Shouldn’t we instead say, “You have obesity”? Your disease is part of you, you are not your disease.
Try saying “You are high cholesterol.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? I think I have heard people being described as “hypertensive,” but even that isn’t bandied about like “he’s obese.”
A few months ago, I was involved in a discussion at work about how people in our weight management program don’t like being referred to as obese, even though their body mass index is clearly in the “obesity” range. Not only do they not like it, but some get very upset. I used to think it was simply that people don’t like being told bluntly that they are carrying around that many excess pounds. Perhaps the real issue is they don’t like feeling as if they are being handed a one-word, superficial identity…and a negative one at that. You are obese. You are fat. You are ugly. Why do those three things sound alarmingly the same, yet only one is a treatable medical condition, while the others are rather nasty value judgments?
I had obesity (look at me, using my new words). It developed slowly, and insidiously, through a series of sub-par lifestyle choices (primarily eating a little too much and not exercising quite enough). I developed obesity, I fought obesity, and I vanquished obesity. Like other chronic diseases, I know that it can come back if I’m not diligent about maintaining my healthier lifestyle.
But I remained the same person before, during and after my episode of obesity. OK, I’m a little older now, and a good bit wiser, but other than that…exactly the same. I feel it’s appropriate that I just now came across this article about how obesity adversely affects quality of life, but these effects are strongest for women.