Labeling obesity a disease proves detrimental to the obese, study finds


After the American Medical Association officially declared obesity a disease last year, the psychological impact this has had on overweight and obese individuals is starting to become evident.

A new study published in Psychological Science found that messages describing obesity as a disease can undermine healthy behaviors and beliefs among people who are obese.

The findings showed that overweight people who were exposed to these types of messages were less likely to carry out healthy eating habits and reported less concern about their weight. These beliefs and behaviors, the study reports, then predicted more unhealthy choices when it came to food and diet.

"Considering that obesity is a crucial public-health issue, a more nuanced understanding of the impact of an 'obesity is a disease' message has significant implications for patient-level and policy-level outcomes," said Crystal Hoyt, a psychological scientist at the University of Richmond. "Experts have been debating the merits of, and problems with, the AMA policy - we wanted to contribute to the conversation by bringing data rather than speculation and by focusing on the psychological repercussions."

Victim mode

For the study, Hoyt and her team recruited over 700 participants to take an online survey. The subjects read an article related to health and weight and then answered various questions. One group of participants read an article that described obesity as a disease, while another group read a standard public health overview about obesity. A third group read an article that stated obesity is not a disease.

The team hypothesized that regarding obesity as a disease could sway how people felt about it, especially when it came to the idea that a "disease" is something a person cannot control.

Results showed their hypothesis was right: those who read the article about obesity being a disease placed less importance on health-focused dieting and weight loss. They also were more likely to choose higher-calorie foods when asked to choose from several lunch options.

"Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences," says Hoyt.

While the researchers aren't saying there isn't some benefit to regarding obesity as a disease, they do suggest there are "hidden costs" associated with this type of messaging.

"In our ongoing work, we hope to gain a greater understanding of how the 'obesity is a disease' message influences beliefs about the controllability of weight," Hoyt said. "In addition, we are also interested in investigating the role of this message in reducing stigma against the obese."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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