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Obesity Labeled as a Disease: Good or Bad?

obesityThe American Medical Association reclassified obesity as a disease in June 2013.[1] Many became concerned about the possible double-edged sword situation that this may have initiated.1 A new study has proven those concerns have come true, reporting psychological backlash among individuals labeled as obese.1

The study, entitled “Obesity Is a Disease: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message” was published in the journal Psychological Science on January 28, 2014.1 Researchers found that when individuals who are obese were told that obesity is a disease, they actually made less of an effort to make healthy diet choices and reported less motivation to change their weight.1 Labeling obesity as a disease caused many to psychologically surrender to their diagnosis and make unhealthy food choices.1

Author of the study, Crystal Hoyt and colleagues hypothesized that labeling obesity as a disease would create the misconception that changing one’s weight after they are labeled as “obese” would be seen as out of their control.1 Being labeled a disease, attempts at weight management seemed futile to many.1

“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 Hoyt. “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.”1

“Disease” is an ambiguous term. To the general public, the term seems to mean something that causes illness. With obesity, people are led to believe that something out of their control is causing their illness, which may and may not be true. Therefore, any attempts at losing weight are ceased, as there is no hope felt for successful results. Too many failed attempts backs up the logic.

Hoyt and colleagues recruited 700 participants to take part in an online survey.1 Participants were asked to read an article and then answer various questions.1 Some read an article that described obesity as a disease, some read a standard public health message about weight, and the rest read an article that specifically stated that obesity is not a disease.1

Those who read the article that stated that obesity is a disease were found to place less importance on dieting and reported less concern for weight, compared with the two other groups.1 This group also chose a higher-calorie option when asked to pick a sandwich from a provided menu.1

Hoyt said, “Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences.”1

Although framing obesity as a disease may help to decrease shame and promote a greater acceptance of diverse body shapes and sizes, there are many hidden costs, including less motivation to eat healthy.1

“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,” said Hoyt. “In addition, we are also interested in investigating the role of this message in reducing stigma against the obese.”1

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