Labeling Obesity a Disease Could Undermine Health, Shows Study


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Last summer the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to officially define obesity as a disease. The AMA's members hope that the reclassification will require medical professionals to more directly intervene with obese patients. The group's intentions were to encourage a greater focus on obesity and related health issues, but the label of disease has been a controversial one.

Today a new study has thrown new fuel into the debate, showing that labeling obesity a disease could actually have a negative effect on the health of obese people. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that the new label could undermine efforts to lose weight and promote the belief that weight is inevitable.

"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, lead author of the study and a psychology researcher 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."

The study surveyed over 700 people, logging their BMI to determine whether they were obese or not. Some participants were shown one of two articles, one describing obesity as a disease and the other giving general public health information about weight.

In surveys taken after the reading, Hoyt and her colleagues found that participants who read the article naming obesity as a disease had less concern for weight and dieting than those who read the general health article. Participants who read the obesity-as-disease article were also found to have higher body satisfaction, which is related to less-healthy food choices.

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