Well Being

‘Obesity: Decision Or Disease?’ Billboards Oversimplify The Issue

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obesity disease billboard in Indiana

The root causes of America's obesity problems are too complicated to distill into simple sloganeering like “Obesity is a disease, not a decision.” Yet that's exactly the tack an Indiana hospital is taking with a series of billboards designed to attract people to its weight-loss and bariatric surgery services.

The billboards, erected by St. Mary Medical Center of Northwest Indiana, have stirred up more than just new recruits: They're also causing a backlash from people who believe the hospital's message is irresponsible and removes personal responsibility from the obesity equation. St. Mary's director of bariatric services, Lorri Field, said the hospital has been receiving angry phone calls and emails from people offended by the billboards' message. Here's one sample:

“There is no disease that causes your body to drive to McDonald’s to go get some fries. There is no disease that makes your hands unwrap a candy bar. It’s all habits.”

Field said she “didn’t expect such an ugly debate.”

I'm not surprised. At a time when nearly three-quarters of this country is on track to be overweight or obese, the question of whether obesity should be treated like any other medical condition or whether it's a ‘lifestyle choice' always tends to stir up strong opinions. Like the debate over alcoholism or other forms of addiction, however, framing obesity as either one or the other, disease or decision, is too simplistic to be of much use beyond marketing. I guess maybe St. Mary's billboards are kind of irresponsible—not for suggesting that obesity is a disease, but for painting the debate in such starkly black-or-white terms.

Ultimately, it's impossible for an outsider to tell how much nutrition, genetics or other factors contribute to an individual's obesity—it's often a complicated interplay between many things. Calling obesity a ‘decision' is way too flippant—you'd be hard-pressed to find many obese people who say, yes yes yes, I really want all these extra pounds! And yet personal responsibility does factor in. Calling obesity a ‘disease' takes into account genetic factors that influence a person's likelihood to carry extra weight. Yet unlike, say, ovarian cancer, obesity can often be managed or mitigated by lifestyle choices. And neither of these frames takes environmental or cultural factors—both big contributors to obesity in and of themselves—into account.

While the controversy these billboards are causing may not be entirely surprising, it does make you wonder how we got to this polarizing point, doesn't it? So maybe you don't agree with the hospital's conclusion that obesity is a disease—is that really a cause for anger or offense? Why do so many people feel such a personal stake in the obesity issue?

Let's hear your thoughts in the comments …

Photo: MyFoxOrlando.com