Obesity: Its Status as a Disease


Is obesity a disease? Yes, World Health Organization (WHO) and other authoritative institutions say so, is the standard answer. However, by investigating these sources and some standard definitions of disease, the answer becomes much less obvious. According to naturalist and hybrid definitions of disease, obesity does not qualify as a disease, but according to several normativist conceptions of disease, it does. This undecidedness gives leeway for a wide range of pragmatic arguments for and against making obesity a disease. Using social conceptions of disease to make obesity a disease calls for careful reflection, as they may be based on contested aesthetic, moral and other social norms. History is full of examples where socially defined diseases later have been heavily criticised. Homosexuality, dissiency, drapetomania and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are some examples.

Key Concepts

  • Obesity is defined as an excess of adipose tissue (BMI ≥ 30 kg m2).
  • Disease is defined in many ways, and in general, definitions are classified as naturalist, normativist or hybrid.
  • A naturalist definition of disease defines disease in terms of characteristics in nature.
  • A normativist definition of disease defines disease in terms of norms (and values), and as such depends on social conventions.
  • Hybrid definitions of disease refer both to natural and social phenomena.
  • Obesity is not a disease according to naturalist conceptions of disease.
  • Obesity may very well be a disease according to normativist definitions of disease.
  • Pragmatic arguments for making obesity a disease yet lack convincing evidence.

Keywords: definition; disease; dysfunction; normativist; naturalist; obesity

Figure 1. Types of theories and definitions of disease.
Figure 2. Pragmatic arguments for and against making obesity a disease.


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Further Reading

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Hofmann, Bjørn(Nov 2016) Obesity: Its Status as a Disease. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027022]