View of Earth

WHO Moves Toward Understanding Obesity

For the last two days we’ve been gathered with a small group of passionate advocates from all over the world, finding ways to collaborate for progress in health policy related to obesity. The change comes in increments. Obesity relates to cultures, food, and health systems that differ significantly all over the world. So finding a common thread can be a challenge. But one thing is clear. The world – and the World Health Organization (WHO) – is moving toward better understanding obesity as a non-communicable disease (NCD).

WHO is moving on a path from thinking of obesity as a “modifiable behavioral risk factor” to a “metabolic risk factor” and then to an NCD. CEO Johanna Ralston of the World Obesity Federation described her organization’s painstaking work to encourage this. It is part of an adoption curve for health policy that respects both science and people living with obesity.

Now Is the time

Just last month, we saw evidence of this progress in news coming from WHO in Europe. A news release got right to the point:

“Obesity needs to be treated just like any other disease that threatens people’s lives. To fight obesity effectively, policy-makers, health professionals and other stakeholders need to create a health system that ensures that every person has access to high quality care for the management of overweight and obesity. Austria is currently working on a such a system that can bring obesity treatment to the next level.”

This represents a clear understanding within WHO that obesity is an NCD. Not a modifiable behavior. Not just a risk factor. But it is a complex, chronic disease that’s not simply cured by nudging the public to eat less and move more.

The Challenge of Consensus

In the course of this week’s meeting of the Obesity Policy Engagement Network, we found reminders of how difficult consensus can be. One delegate asked us, “is it possible that ‘disease’ means different things in different languages?” Someone who works in the field had recently told her obesity can’t be a disease – because it’s not contagious. Sigh.

And then there’s the whole issue of the emotional content that words carry. The difference between calling obesity a health condition and calling it a disease is a distinction that can inspire some people to fight.

But nonetheless, consensus is building. NCDs are a challenge of increasing importance for WHO. And thus the organization is edging ever closer to understanding obesity as a complex chronic disease that lies at the root of this challenge. The COVID pandemic taught us that untreated NCDs – including obesity – put some countries and some communities in a position to suffer with unnecessary deaths.

So it’s not inevitable, but it is doable, and we see progress in the direction of WHO embracing a better understanding of obesity.

Click here for more from WHO on obesity and here for their current description of the NCD challenge.

View of Earth, photograph by the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center / Wikimedia Commons

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October 6, 2022