As a nurse practitioner at the Oxford Adult Care and Weight Loss Center, Kanina Crosen sees Alabama's obesity problem firsthand.
To her, obesity is more than a condition that 30 percent of adult Alabamians live with every day, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is a disease.
The American Medical Association, the largest physician group in the country, agrees, and officially recognized obesity as a disease Monday during its annual meeting in Chicago. But while the organization has no legal authority to dictate how obesity should be treated, some local health experts say the decision could spur physicians to more aggressively attack the problem and encourage insurers to offer more coverage for treatments and prevention.
"I honestly do think it's a disease," Crosen said. "We try every possible angle to prevent it, the same way we might treat someone who has high blood pressure ... it's a problem we're trying to prevent."
The AMA, specifically its house of delegates, voted to categorize obesity as a disease during its annual meeting in Chicago Monday. The decision went against the conclusions of the association's Council on Science and Public Health, which studied the issue the past year. The council determined obesity was not a disease since the body mass index, the measure used to define obesity, is overly simplistic.
Statistics from the CDC show that obesity is a growing epidemic, with more than one-third of American adults being categorized as obese. About 17 percent of U.S. children are obese, the statistics show.
The situation is particularly dire for Alabama, which is among the three states with the highest rates of obesity for adults. Obesity can lead to a variety of conditions, from diabetes to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Lewis Doggett of Anniston Pediatrics, who focuses on childhood obesity and is working to create a childhood obesity clinic for the area, said obesity has been treated like a disease for some time.
"I think whether they call it that or not, we certainly treat it like it's a disease," Doggett said. "It's got obvious medical morbidity attached to it and there's definitely prevention efforts with it."
Doggett said he hoped AMA's decision will lead to more intervention and prevention of obesity among the medical community. At Anniston Pediatrics, Doggett tells parents to feed their children five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, cut out sweets and sugary beverages and encourage them to engage in one hour of activity each day.
Crosen said she hoped the disease designation will encourage insurers to cover more treatments for obesity.
"I hope insurance will cover more things like appetite suppressants, weight loss treatment and even gym memberships," Crosen said.
Crosen said prevention of obesity is the key to dealing with a host of other diseases that many Americans have, such as diabetes.
"You've got to start at the root of the problem," Crosen said.
Dr. Jeff Terry, chairman of the Alabama delegation to the AMA and past president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, said he was not sure what, if any, effect AMA's decision will have on the medical community.
"We want to acknowledge that obesity is a terrible problem affecting over 30 percent of our population, however, the council felt it did not meet the true definition of disease," Terry said. "This does not affect how we take care of obesity ... it is not important as far as how physicians take care of the patient."
Don Williamson, Alabama’s state health officer, who attended the AMA meeting, said he had mixed feelings about the decision.
"If it encourages insurance companies to cover preventive care, that's a positive development," Williamson said.
However, he added that the disease label could encourage some people to take less responsibility for their own fitness.
Dr. Timothy Garvey, chairman of the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he considered obesity to be a disease with genetic, behavioral and environmental causes.
"I very enthusiastically welcome this decision," Garvey said.
Garvey said the AMA decision could accelerate changes in society's understanding about obesity, and he hopes it will improve coverage offered by insurers. Garvey said insurers will cover bariatric surgery, a procedure involving the removal of a portion of the stomach to treat obesity, but not many lifestyle interventions like weight-loss programs.
"We need to use all the weapons we have to treat this disease and it would help if insurers help cover prevention," Garvey said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette contributed to this report.