Is obesity a disease? That's what the American Medical Association (AMA) decided when it officially designated obesity as a disease at its annual meeting this month.

The move brands the one-third of Americans who are obese as sick and paves the way for changes in policy and treatment of obesity.

The action comes in response to the fact that obesity rates have doubled among US adults over the last twenty years and tripled among children in just one generation.

Many committee members saw obesity as more of a risk factor for other diseases than a disease itself.

It was not a unanimous decision. An AMA committee studied the issue for over a year and was against adopting the policy, but when the measure was put to a vote of all the delegates, it passed.

One of the reasons the majority of committee members did not support the idea of obesity as a disease was that using the body mass index (BMI) to determine obesity is viewed by many as flawed. In addition, many committee members saw obesity as more of a risk factor for other diseases than a disease itself.

Those voting to consider obesity a disease say that doing so will reduce the stigma of obesity as simply the product of overeating and a lack of physical activity and encourage doctors to treat it more vigorously. They also believe that obesity fits some disease classification criteria.

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans, ” said AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D.

The AMA’s statement has no legal authority, but it does carry clout. Labeling obesity as a disease that requires medical treatment and prevention may now make it easier to change public health policy so obese people can receive treatment.

The move may also make it more likely that insurers provide or increase reimbursement for obesity treatments, including drugs, surgery, and counseling by health professionals such as physicians, dietitians, and exercise specialists, costs not typically covered by all health insurance policies.

Whether the policy shift "medicalizes" overweight and obesity in such a way that the public comes to ignore the matter of personal responsibility and the role of diet and exercise in preventing and combating obesity and instead expects to be able to take a pill and be cured of their disease, remains to be seen.

Opponents of the AMA's designation are concerned that the shift in our views of obesity will result in an overdependence on pills and surgery to fix what may be better dealt with through lifestyle and food policy changes.

On this front, the AMA did issue another nutrition-related food policy statement. The doctors group called for removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), citing studies that have shown that sugary drinks account for 58 percent of the beverages purchased under SNAP.

“The AMA is working to improve the nation’s health care outcomes, particularly cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are often linked to obesity, ” said AMA President Ardis D. Hoven, MD. “Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will help encourage healthier beverage choices. ”