People with obesity are often viewed as lazy, over-indulgent and deserving of what they get, new research has revealed.
Some 25% of Irish adults are currently obese, while a further 25% are at risk of becoming obese.
New research on attitudes carried out by the Irish Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (IrSPEN) has found that stigma remains a major problem for obese people.
According to IrSPEN spokesperson, Prof Carel le Roux, there appears to be a "moral judgement" among the general public, healthcare professionals and even patients themselves, that people with obesity "deserve their condition", that it is their fault, and as a result, they do not deserve healthcare funding.
"Half of the population has not suddenly become lazy and lost its will power. Genetic and also environmental factors are critical in the chance of being obese. The disease is inheritable and we have also seen a huge shift to sedentary jobs, car-based transport and highly-processed food.
"Medical evidence shows that some people are at a far higher risk of obesity than others and that this has nothing to do with their willpower," Prof le Roux explained.
He insisted that obesity needs to be viewed as a medical disease, which must be treated. This will improve the health and wellbeing of those affected and save the State "the enormous costs of treating life-long secondary conditions".
"For example, type 2 diabetes is a complication of obesity and affects 200,000 people. This single obesity complication accounts for more than 10% of the overall healthcare budget.
"Proven treatments, such as surgery, cost-effective medicines, and scientifically proven diets are available. While a New Year's burst of diet and exercise is certainly welcome, we know that it will have little long-term impact on most patients' disease," Prof le Roux said.
Meanwhile, according to St Vincent's University Hospital consultant surgeon and IrSPEN member, Prof Helen Heneghan, for most of those affected, the response needs to be re-framed away from a 'move more, eat less' approach, to a 'seek help with clinical treatments' approach.
"Patients, parents, teachers, doctors, colleagues, school friends, and everyone else needs to be informed that obesity is not a mark of failure or lack of commitment, but a disease response to a genetic heritage, a metabolic illness, an unhealthy environment, or combinations of these.
"People living with obesity need to understand, that it's not their fault. They have a disease and their own self-control is not the sole determinant of weight gain or weight loss," she said.
However, Prof Heneghan pointed out that while healthcare professionals are aware that obesity is a disease, the evidence is that it is not treated as such.
"Obesity is rarely diagnosed, follow-up appointments are not scheduled, referrals to medical specialists are unusual, and in Ireland there are no reimbursable drugs or diet approaches which can be prescribed," she said.
She noted that Ireland has had excellent success in recent years in some areas of public health, such as smoking, and she called for a similar programme to change attitudes towards obesity so that patients "are comfortable looking for medical help".
IrSPEN repeated its calls for proven and cost-effective treatments to be made publically accessible here. Ireland currently has the lowest per capita funding of obesity care in the EU.
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