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An overweight person is shown in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., May 12, 2005. Obesity rates are at an all-time high, especially in certain parts of the country, say researchers, who have "mapped" the changes to illustrate how Canadians' waistlines have expanded over time.Richard Buchan/The Canadian Press

A decision in the United States to recognize obesity as a disease has prompted soul-searching within Canada's medical establishment on whether to follow suit.

The dramatic move by the American Medical Association on Tuesday, which is expected to spur doctors and insurers to pay more attention to obesity, could also prompt action in Canada.

Although no provincial government recognizes obesity as a disease, the head of Canada's largest group of doctors expects a debate formally labelling obesity as such could come in the fall.

Calling the American decision "sensible," the president of the Canadian Medical Association said that a motion to redefine obesity could come at the organization's assembly in August. "It's never come up in the past, however with this news I expect it might be raised," said Anna Reid.

Like the decision in the U.S., recognition by Canada's doctors would not require an immediate change to government policy. However, obesity experts say the move would shine a spotlight on the lack of resources they feel are directed at the problem. One in four adults is now defined as obese by Health Canada.

"I see one overweight teenager every week with a fatty liver and I have to tell them that their life expectancy is less than their parents," said David Lau, the head of Obesity Canada. "We aren't trying to medicalize obesity, but we need to increase the public's awareness that obesity is a problem."

Canadian provinces already offer basic access to consultations and surgery where obesity puts a patient's health at risk. But access and waiting times vary. With basic care in place, experts say that labelling obesity as a disease would lead to an increase in research funding and a greater emphasis on obesity in medical school curriculums. Canada's slimmest province is British Columbia, where obesity rates are half those found in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the U.S. the decision is expected to sway insurers to pay for additional surgery and prescription drugs to help those tackling obesity.

The debate over obesity has been a lightning rod for decades. While a poor diet and lack of exercise are often cited as reasons for the explosion in obesity cases, Yoni Freedhoff argued the reasons are rarely personal. The Ottawa-area specialist blamed Canada's quickly growing waistline on a "perfect storm" of societal changes where portion sizes have grown, foods are richer and proper education is lacking.

"This is Canada's number one public health concern, labelling it a disease would make it harder to ignore that," said Dr. Freedhoff.

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