Photograph of the spiral staircase in the Charles Perkins Centre

Is obesity a disease?

17 June 2016

Health and medical experts, industry and key decision makers will debate the classification of obesity when they gather at Obesity Australia's fifth annual summit at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre on 22 June.

Recognising and treating obesity as a disease is increasingly being considered by academics, health organisations and industry groups as a possible solution to Australia’s growing obesity crisis.

Yet despite the World Health Organisation recognising obesity as a disease in theory for decades, and the American Medical Association officially moving to do so in 2013, there is still not consensus in Australia.

Australia is currently the fifth most obese country in the OECD with 63 percent of the adult population overweight or obese, and 28 percent obese. The prevalence of obesity globally has nearly doubled in the past 30 years and underlines the challenges facing individuals, the health system and policy makers.

The summit will discuss what it will take to define obesity as a disease, and the implications of doing so.

“If obesity is officially recognised and treated as a disease, it can be managed and prevented more effectively, and the future of Australia’s health might look far more hopeful,” said Professor Stephen Simpson, Executive Director of Obesity Australia and Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre.

We want to reduce the stigma associated with obesity and empower governments, the health system, doctors, health insurers and industry to work together to tackle this growing epidemic.
Professor Stephen Simpson, Executive Director of Obesity Australia and Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre

“Obesity Australia has been calling for this classification for some time. For the first time in one event, the Summit will bring together the different perspectives needed to make – or deny – the case for disease status; from evolutionary biology, philosophy and brain science to the lived experience of suffers and clinicians. We will also explore the implications for government, the economy, the law, the health system industry, society and patients,” Professor Simpson said.

The summit will conclude with a Q&A and panel session facilitated by Professor Simpson. He’ll be joined on the panel by Obesity Australia board members The Honourable Barry O’Farrell, Professor Ian Caterson (Co-Director, The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, Academic Director, Charles Perkins RPA Clinic), The Honourable Dr Craig Emerson (Craig Emerson Economics) as well as Professor Tim Gill (Professor of Public Health Nutrition, The Boden Institute), Dr Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens and Senator for Victoria.