The American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease during its annual meeting in Chicago this week.
The change from "major public health problem" to a chronic disease will reportedly open up a range of medical interventions that could help treat the now one-third of Americans who are considered obese, said Dr. Patrice Harris, a member of the AMA's board of trustees.
"We believe that raising the level of seriousness by classifying obesity as a disease may encourage third-party payers to increase coverage for treatment and may also encourage greater investment for study," she said.
The decision to classify obesity as a disease superseded recommendations made by an AMA committee that had studied the issue for more than a year.
According the AMA's final report, obesity is diagnosed by measuring the person's body mass index, a number calculated from a person's weight and height that provides a somewhat reliable indicator of body fat.
Obesity researcher James O. Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado, claims most people who treat obesity believe that a BMI higher than 30 means the person is at risk. He added that AMA's standardization was the first step to take in tackling the problem.
"We recognize that over a third of the population has a disease. Now we can start getting some standardization for reimbursements and treatments," he said.