Obesity is a leading health issue and the second leading cause of mortality in the United States with an estimated 300,000 deaths per year. The condition is considered to be a major risk because of its etiological connection with other secondary illnesses such as coronary artery disease, certain types of cancer, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Common in industrialized countries, obesity is also a significant contributor to the rising medical costs in the healthcare sector, especially in the U.S. where obesity rates are said to be highest (Ogden, Carroll, Fryar & Flegal, 2015). Two out three American men are obese. Incidence rates are even higher in women. An obese American spends an average of $1430 more in medical expenses on a yearly basis. This amounts to $147 billion of added costs in U.S. healthcare annually when overweight statistics are taken into account. Overall, 35.5% of American adults are obese while an additional 32.5 percent are overweight, meaning that more than two thirds of the entire between the age of 2 to 19 years who are considered obese (Skinner, Perrin, & Skelton, 2016). The significance of obesity as a major health issue is justified by the high mortality rate and health care costs which currently surpass those associated with smoking.
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In medical terms, obesity is characterized as a condition associated with excess body fat, described by either genetic or environmental factors that are difficult to control in the dieting process. This medical identifying characteristic of obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake and energy consumption within the body of the patient. Excess energy intake or low energy consumption usually leads to large storage of energy in the form of triacylglycerol in adipose tissue which stores energy when a person ingests excess calories and converts triacylglycerol reservoirs back into usable energy. A minor imbalance of as little as 10 surplus calories per day is enough for continued weight gain of up to one pound per year. Consequently, dietary patterns are a critical factor in the development of obesity. Medical specialists diagnose obesity using the Body Mass Index (BMI) system of measurement. People with a BMI of 30 or higher are classified as obese (Ogden, Carroll, Fryar & Flegal, 2015). Since obesity interferes with normal function of various body organs, such as the circulatory system, it increases one’s risk of developing a range of illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, stroke, high cholesterol, gallbladder disease, and sleep apnea, among others.
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Many causes are directly or indirectly attributed to obesity. However, behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors are the major contributors according to the Centers for Disease Control. With regard to behavior, modern lifestyles have adopted unhealthy dieting habits, minimal physical activity, and little effort dedicated to maintain health. Studies have shown that the average American consumes more calories than they did in the past decade, leading to intake of more nutrients than needed for normal body function. Food portions have also increased in size both at home and in restaurants. At the same time, the amount of physical activity has reduced due to influence of computers, television, and other technologies that discourage people to engage in physical activity. The environment also plays a significant role in shaping lifestyle habits that promote the disease. For example, a sedentary lifestyle with more instances of driving than walking and a higher availability of convenience foods rather than nutrition has been a key reason for the dev elopement of obesity youth and adults. Genetic variations have also been associated with increased risks of obesity where certain genes cause disorders that result in obesity. Research on the role of genetics in obesity is still underway.
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When viewed via a symbolist interactionist sociological lens, obesity is a mere social construction. In other words, the mental and physical conditions that define the illnesses have little or no objective reality and are only considered unhealthy because they have been defined so by the society. While a sociologist may admit that there has been an increase in average body weight in the American population, they may also point out that the society is biased when it comes to categorization of healthy and unhealthy weight (Altman, Van Hook, & Hillemeier, 2016). Indeed, one can conclude that the term obesity was constructed by the medical community and the use of BMI as a major defining factor for incidence has resulted in exaggeration of the number of people suffering from the condition. BMI is not a precisely accurate method of measuring obesity. Besides, scholars have drawn attention to competing meanings of body fat. The society’s construction of fatness has been followed by the claim that fat is unhealthy and ugly (Hutson, 2017). The society has also declared that the body is an image of the psyche and moral fiber. Altogether, these social constructions have advanced the obesity epidemic beyond reasonable levels.
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According to the symbolic interactionist approach, the relationship between healthcare professionals and patients warrants attention. Whether consciously or not, physicians are tasked with the responsibility of “managing the situation” by displaying medical knowledge and authority. The physician is identified by their lab coat, title name, and ‘availability’ while the patient is simply referred by their first name and is subject to the physician’s availability. Additionally, physicians use complicated medical terms to describe medical illnesses instead of simple terms such as those used by laypeople. The symbolic interactionist approach has had a significance influence in the United States in the recent years, prompting the healthcare sector to plan on redefining the term obesity (Hutson, 2017). The condition has been widely recognized as a health risk, but a group of people identifying as “fat pride” or “fat acceptance” activists have claimed that the current medical viewpoint of obesity as a health risk is highly exaggerated and, consequently, has become some form of justification for discriminating overweight people. On the other hand, the health care community has accepted the unfortunate nature of such discrimination but with the remarks that such activism is has gone beyond its limits in attempting to minimize obesity risks.
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In conclusion, there is a huge disparity between the medical and sociological viewpoints of obesity. The medical viewpoint supposes that anyone with a BMI of over 30 is overweight while the sociological viewpoint claims that this is just a social construction of what is considered unhealthy. Both perspectives have a certain level of validity. However, there is a need to balance the ultimate construct of obesity in evidence based terms to harmonize medical and sociological views.
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