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Guess what the latest disease is

Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 12:01 am

Genes can predispose, but they don't control our behavior.

Carrying a few extra pounds there, chubby? Relax – you're no longer considered a lazy, self-indulgent glutton. You're just sick. The American Medical Association this week voted to upgrade obesity to “disease” status. Excessive eating now joins excessive alcohol intake as something we should pity people for instead of sitting in judgment on them.

Certainly there could be benefits to the disease model. Insurance companies might start paying for weight-loss treatments the same way they pay for smoking-cessation programs now. The campaign to get junk food out of schools might get more support. Nutrition counseling might be taken more seriously. Doctors might pay more attention to patient's eating and lifestyle habits. Fewer Americans might suffer from actual diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.

But there is also a downside we should not ignore.

This is one more step on the path we've been on that leads away from accepting responsibility. It's never anybody's fault for anything: I didn't get irresponsibly drunk; my genes made me do it. And, I don't have anger issues; I suffer from social anxiety disorder. And, I can't help smoking; I have an addictive personality. Now add I eat too much because my disease hasn't been treated to the list.

A small percentage of obesity is caused by genuine medical conditions. But the overwhelming majority of it comes from eating too much, making poor food choices and not exercising enough. The more we think of obesity as a disease, the less likely we are to acknowledge the simple need to make responsible use of our free will.

As we have come to understanding more about the human genome, there has been an unfortunate tendency to explain everything by heredity. How can we be held responsible for bad behavior when it is programmed into our very being?

That's not exactly the key to a healthy, civilized society. Yes, there is a genetic component to everything. But genetics only predispose; our biology does not predetermine. We all have tendencies, but we also have the obligation to accept the consequences of our decisions.