Obesity is a major problem in countries all around the world. With billions of people living unhealthy lives, the consequences are very significant. Is obesity a disease? Or is it something else? Let’s discuss it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Obese (adj) – extremely fat in a way that is dangerous for health

She was not just overweight, she was obese

To consider (v) – to believe someone or something to be, or think of him, her, or it as something 

He is considered to be the greatest ever tennis player

Preventable (adj) – able to be prevented or stopped

That company was investigated after numerous preventable accidents occurred. 

To impair (v) – to make it weaker so that it is less effective

A knee injury impaired his chances of winning the tournament

Imbalance (n) – a situation in which two things that should be equal or that are normally equal are not

There is a huge economic imbalance between the two countries 

Inactive (adj) – doing nothing

It’s bad for your health to be physically inactive

To suffer (v) – to experience physical or mental pain

She’s been suffering from cancer for two years  

Self-inflicted (adj) – if an injury or a problem is self-inflicted, you have caused it yourself 

Her injury was self-inflicted: she cut herself while cooking dinner

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In a survey from 2019, 28% of adults in England, my home country, were obese, and a further 36% of all adults are overweight. The USA is the most obese industrialised country in the world, with almost 40% of all adults in 2016 being obese. Around the world, obesity has tripled since 1975!

Fast food is a major cause of obesity. Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Even more concerning is the number of children and young people considered obese or overweight – 39 million children younger than 5 in 2020. Obesity also has serious health effects and consequences – in the US 19.8% of deaths and 21% of healthcare spending is directly related to obesity.  But obesity is preventable! 

Today, I want to look at the debate over whether or not obesity is a disease. On the one hand, a large amount of people suggest obesity should be considered a disease as it meets the definition of disease and can be caused by genetic factors. On the other hand, others suggest that obesity should not be considered a disease as it is preventable, and is the result of overeating and too little exercise. After a brief discussion of what obesity is, and how it is measured, we’ll look at different arguments to help us answer the question – “Is obesity a disease?”

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What is Obesity? What is Overweight? 

According to the WHO, both overweight and obesity are defined by abnormal, or in other words too much, body fat which may impair health. How do they measure obesity? The most common method is called the Body Mass Index or BMI! BMI is calculated by considering a person’s height and weight (kg/m2). For example, I am 1.89 metres tall, and weigh about 94kg – which gives me a BMI of just under 25.

BMI is a combination of weight and height. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

What does this mean? Am I overweight? Well, almost! A BMI of 25 or greater is considered overweight, and a BMI of greater that 30 is considered obese. So I should probably lose a little weight, but I don’t need to be really concerned at the moment. 

Importantly, BMI is definitely not the best or only way of measuring health. It should be considered a rough guide – athletes with high levels of muscle and low fat are often rated as obese. And children need to have their age factored into the consideration. Nevertheless, BMI is the most common way of measuring obesity – and nearly 2 billion adults around the world are considered overweight by this measure. 

What causes obesity? 

At the basic level, obesity is caused by an imbalance between the calories consumed and calories used. There are some genetic causes, but for the majority of people it is related to calories. Over the past decades, high-calorie foods full of sugar and fat have become a major part of global diets. At the same time, our modern lifestyles tend to be very inactive. I try to go for a walk every day as my whole life is based at my desk – the desk in my bedroom is where I study, where I research, where I write podcasts, where I teach English, and where I watch TV. I could easily spend all day sitting at my desk, not moving at all. 

Most jobs tend to be similar – a lot of sitting down and little exercise. We eat a lot of high-calorie food and don’t use enough calories in our daily lives  – the result is weight gain. It can be a little more complicated, but in general weight gain and loss is based on a calorie balance. If you eat more calories than you use, you will gain weight. If you eat less calories than you use, you will lose weight. There are exceptions to this, but in principle weight is based on energy consumption

We no longer need to move to live our lives! Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

However, it is also important to acknowledge the environmental and social factors that lay behind obesity. It is very easy to say that obesity is an individual problem – it is the responsibility of the overweight person, and they caused it themselves. Remember that we don’t live in an individual world. Food companies, health, transport, environment, city planning, marketing, education, and much more all influence and direct our exercise and eating habits. 

I grew up in the countryside: I could safely walk around my town everyday; there were many parks and areas for people to exercise; we were encouraged to join local sports clubs; and there were no fast food restaurants in the town. So, it was easier to be healthy! If you live in an area that is not safe to walk around, there is no encouragement to exercise, and the city is full of cheap fast food – it is much more difficult to be healthy! 

What are the Consequences of Overweight and Obesity? 

There are many negative health consequences of being overweight. It is considered a risk factor for numerous different diseases. By risk factor, we mean if you are obese or overweight you are much more likely to suffer from such illnesses. For example, obese people are more likely to suffer from heart disease, have diabetes, suffer from some cancers, and experience bone problems!

Moreover, childhood obesity is linked to many other problems. If you are obese as a child, you are more likely to be obese as an adult and suffer a premature death. Obese children can also suffer from breathing issues, early heart problems, and psychological effects. 

Is Obesity a Disease?

Is obesity a disease? This question may seem a little strange to some of you, but is actually a really important debate in healthcare. Some people argue that obesity meets the definition of disease, while others consider it to be a self-inflicted injury. Why is it important? Well, it can affect how it is treated and how people view those suffering from obesity. 

So, on today’s episode I’m going to introduce two different sides of the argument. Like all my debate episodes (which you can find here on the blog) these can really help you to prepare for English proficiency tests like the IELTS or TOEFL! I want you to listen to my arguments, think about the topics in English, and decide for yourself what you think. I’ll leave a poll on Spotify and on the blog so you can let me know!

Pro: Obesity is a Disease!

Let’s start with some arguments about why obesity should be considered a disease!

First, obesity meets the definition of disease. What is a disease? According to the American Medical Association, a disease must have three things: it must impair the body, it must have characteristic symptoms and signs, and it must cause harm. Obesity has characteristic symptoms, can cause harm, and causes impairment: therefore it meets the definition of disease! 

Like other diseases, obesity impairs normal bodily functions. It can cause problems with movement, reproductive health, and overproduction of hormones! Furthermore, extreme obesity can lessen a person’s life by up to 10 years. In fact, people who are obese have an increase risk of death – they are between 50-100% more likely to die early.

Is obesity a disease? Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I mentioned earlier that most obesity is caused by calorie imbalance, but that is not always the case. So far, 79 genetic conditions have been associated with obesity including sickle-cell anaemia and Tay-Sachs. If it is related to genetic causes, then it should be considered a disease! Of course, not every case of obesity is genetic, but there are certainly people who have underlying conditions making it impossible for them to maintain a healthy weight! And many different government institutions and medical groups already consider obesity to be a disease. 

Cons: Obesity is not a disease!

Conversely, numerous people have argued that obesity is not a disease. 

First, some people argue that obesity should be considered a preventable risk factor: like smoking or drinking alcohol. Rather than being a disease in itself, it contributes towards the development or seriousness of other illnesses: including heart disease, infertility, and even COVID. 

Second, others have argued that obesity is actually a side effect, not a disease. Obesity can be caused by lack of sleep, depression, arthritis, other diseases, and certain medications. Therefore, rather than a disease it could be considered a symptom or side effect of other things. 

Or is obesity a self-inflicted problem? Photo by Isaac Taylor on Pexels.com

Third, obesity is often caused by eating too much and moving too little. Right now, the average American restaurant meal is four times larger than in the 1950s and 96% of main dishes in US restaurants exceed the recommended fat and salt limits. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to save calories in the form of fat which we could use later when we were short of food. Now, we eat too much, and exercise too little! Our body never needs to use the energy stored in our fat, and instead just keeps making more fat! 

Finally, another reason obesity should not be considered a disease is that many obese people live long, healthy lives. In 2013, a Lancet article suggested over 30% of obese people are “healthy obese”: they do not suffer negative health affects despite being overweight. If disease must cause harm, then perhaps obesity may not meet the requirements!

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English I’ve tried to introduce the issue of obesity. One group believes obesity is a disease: it meets the definitions, causes harm, and can have genetic causes. The other group suggests it is not a disease: it is a side effect, a risk factor, or caused by unhealthy lifestyles! 

What do you think? Is obesity a disease? Or is it a self-inflicted consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle? Let me know in the comments! 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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