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by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

Like a dash of hot chili pepper sauce, the labeling of obesity as a disease is adding heat to the already fiery debate about our nation’s ever-increasing waistline. For the food and restaurant industries, there are looming side effects.

The American Medical Association (AMA) last week officially designated obesity as a disease that requires medical treatment and prevention. The announcement ramped up the online commentary about America’s obesity epidemic, which is the number two cause of preventable death and costs billions in health care and lost productivity each year. The AMA said recognizing obesity as a disease “will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans.”

Complex is an understatement. Even the definition based on Body Mass Index is challenged by many in the medical community. And clearly the psychological, genetic, cultural and socioeconomic factors that play significant roles in obesity cannot be addressed with a simple diet or prescription.

Supporters say the AMA’s policy statement, while not binding, will help promote access to prevention, treatment and insurance coverage. My initial inclination was to support this effort by responsible physicians.

The proposal was met with scorn by critics, who contend that obesity is a lifestyle choice, not a disease. Others said it was just another way for the health care industry and Big Pharma to cash in. Here’s a typical post:

“Follow the money! If obesity is a disease, the insurance companies and doctors get rich by applying diagnostic codes.”

I also read a thought-provoking Forbes Leadership Forum column by Hank Cardello, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of "Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat."

Cardello argues that the policy could “ignite new wars between the food industry and its antagonists” and slow down progress made by manufacturers and restaurants to provide more healthy, lower-calorie options for consumers and diners. A recent study by the Hudson Institute for the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a group of more than 230 major food, restaurant, retail, and other companies, showed that lower-calorie items drove 82% of sales growth for its CPG members between 2006 and 2011. That was four times the growth rate of higher-calorie products. And lower-cal offerings accounted for two-thirds of the new products that had sales of at least $50 million.

Numbers aside, the real hot button issue here is that of personal responsibility, and whether the “disease” designation will help or just give overweight people an excuse to stay that way rather than restrict caloric intake and exercise. Blame the disease, not the double-double cheeseburger, large fries and 64-ounce Dr Pepper. Food is no longer sustenance, but the enemy.

I find myself struggling with this from a policy standpoint. The one given is that obesity is a threat to the nation and demands our best resources to battle it.

Comments? Send me an email at .
KC's View:
The more I've thought about this issue, and talked it through with Kate, the more I find myself conflicted about the "disease" designation by the AMA. My first instinct was to believe that it would remove the stigma of obesity and free people up to seek and receive help. And I think that for some people, this is true.

But I also think that in some cases, the designation will relieve people of feeling any responsibility to do something about their situation. And I think the observation that the AMA has a financial interest in designating obesity as a disease has the ring of truth to it.

The most obvious conclusion I can come up with is that there is no black-and-white solution to a national problem that itself is not black-and-white. Go figure.

I find myself thinking more and more, though, about the following sentence from Kate's column: "Food is no longer sustenance, but the enemy." I worry about that. It seems at least possible that by labeling obesity as a disease, food indeed will be defined in some quarters as an enemy ... and a shift in that direction would be a shame, since food can be one of life's great pleasures.

Sometimes, thinking about these issues, I'm reminded of a song lyric...

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!

Is a puzzlement!