An editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry asks: “Should obesity be included [in the DSM-V] as a brain disorder?”
The thing is, what they’re really suggesting is that compulsive overeating should be included as an eating disorder alongside anorexia and bulimia–something I’m all for, actually. But you’ll notice it’s anorexia and bulimia that are already in the DSM-IV, not thinness. Classifying obesity as a psychiatric disorder would be like classifying bald patches as one, because some people have trichotillomania. What the hell are they thinking?
Standard interventions based on promoting lifestyle changes to decrease excessive food consumption (dieting) and increased physical activity (exercise) are effective and can normalize weight if followed rigorously, but unfortunately they are incredibly difficult to sustain. The discrepancy between the successes of the metabolic treatments of consequences of obesity and the failures of behavioral treatments to prevent or reverse obesity highlight the fact that this condition is not only a metabolic disorder but also a brain disorder. Consideration of the mental component of obesity should be a key target in the treatment of obesity to facilitate compliance and minimize relapse.
I suppose I should give them some credit for admitting flat out that “lifestyle changes” = dieting, at least. But they lose me when they conclude that because diets don’t work, fat people probably have a brain disorder.
Never mind that for diets to work in the long-term, people would have to continue eating a severely, unnaturally calorie-restricted diet for the rest of their lives. That couldn’t have anything to do with it. And let’s definitely not talk about the fact that diets don’t work for thin people, either. It’s not just the “obese” who lose weight by restricting calories, then gain it back as soon as they begin eating like normal human beings. It’s also the many, many people who only had 10 or 20 pounds to lose in the first place. 95 percent of them gain it all back and more, just as surely as 95 percent of big ol’ fatties do. So, if a 5’3″ woman starts out at 130 lbs., diets down to 110, and ends up at 140 two years later, is that evidence that she might have a brain disorder? According to the logic in that passage, it sure is.
What really bothers me is that yes, some people do become tremendously fat by eating compulsively—one of my own family members has twice been hospitalized at eating disorder clinics for just that. Compulsive overeating is essentially bulimia minus purging; it’s real, and it’s devastating. The first published article I ever wrote, in 1993, was on eating disorders, and when I tried to get quotes from doctors about compulsive overeating, I got a whole lot of “Huh?” So I would love to see compulsive overeating receive more attention as a legitimate eating disorder.
But that’s not what they’re proposing. They’re proposing that obesity be classified as an eating disorder.
To be fair, this editorial is merely floating an idea, and the authors are generally circumspect about presenting this as a diagnosis for some obese people, not all. Except in, you know, the frickin’ headline. And except for the part where they’re still advocating for classifying “some forms of obesity” as a disorder instead of “some forms of eating.”
Do you need more analogies besides anorexia/thinness and trich/baldness to see how unbelievably wrongheaded that is? How ’bout “Yellow teeth should be classified as a brain disorder because some people smoke compulsively”? “Gonorrhea should be classified as a brain disorder, because some people have sex addictions”? Do you need me to keep going? BECAUSE I COULD.
I’m the farthest thing from a doctor, but it’s just goddamned common sense that obesity is a symptom of the disorder they’re talking about, not the disorder itself. It’s also sense–though much less common, sadly–that just as there are thin people who eat normally and have no mental health issues around food, there are fat people who do. Bodies are different. So why on earth are they suggesting that a symptom should be classified as a disorder?
Well, here’s a thought: check out the first paragraph of that editorial. The very first thing they tell us is how catastrophic obesity is for individuals and society. (For now, I’m setting aside the fact that some of the claims they make are not at all cut and dried, no matter how many times they’re repeated.) Why start off with the cost of obesity, which actually has about as much to do with whether it’s a brain disorder as, I don’t know, the price of tea in China?
Maybe because you’re looking for funding?
And maybe because your sources for funding have proven themselves to be quite keen on “Obesity! Kills!” research in the past, not so much on “Obesity has myriad causes, many of which are beyond the individual’s control, and, except at the most extreme, weight has little effect on health”?
What’s so incredibly galling about all this is that compulsive overeating is often responsible for the sort of extreme obesity that does severely compromise a person’s health. Recognizing it as a disorder and taking it as seriously as anorexia and bulimia would be a marvelous step toward helping people with genuine physical and mental health problems. But framing it as “some forms of obesity” instead of “some forms of eating” misses the point entirely.
In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, despite being on the small side of fat, despite being able to shop in regular stores, I am officially, diagnosably obese. And if you haven’t seen me lately, this is what obesity looks like (kindly forgive the blurriness):
That right there is an obese person who, as a matter of fact, has some compulsive overeating tendencies–they run rampant in my family, and I have no doubt that there’s a genetic component to that, just as there is to fat itself. But I have neither a full-blown eating disorder nor any weight-related health issues. And still, given the way they frame the problem in this editorial, I could easily be categorized as someone who needs help for my brain disorder because I’m gonna die 20 years early and cost society all sorts of money.
Some of the fat people in my family and circle of friends do have both eating disorders and weight-related health problems. I would love to see them get better, more comprehensive, more dignified treatment for their illnesses. And what this editorial proposes could lead to that. But it won’t if the researchers–and those who fund them–can’t get their big, fat heads around the fact that obesity is sometimes a symptom of a brain disorder, not the damned disorder itself.