Researchers at the University of Richmond and the University of Minnesota say labelling obesity as a disease is having a negative impact on the unhealthy eating behaviour of overweight people.
They have collected data to suggest that the label, ‘disease’ makes people think that obesity is an unchangeable condition, and therefore they do not feel compelled to stop eating unhealthily and tackle their weight.
The American Medical Association defined obesity as a disease in June 2013 and psychologists Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette wanted to establish what effect this has had – particularly on the overweight population.
Dr Hoyt said: “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.
“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.”
More than 700 participants were signed up to the study conducted by Dr Hoyt and her colleagues. Each one had their BMI calculated and had to complete an online survey across three different studies – answering various questions related to health and weight.
A key aspect of this study was that while some participants read an article that described obesity as a disease, some only read a standard public health message about weight, and others were given an article specifically stating that obesity is not a disease.
The results showed that the particular message obese participants read had a clear impact on their attitudes toward health, diet, and weight.
Significantly, the obese participants who read the ‘obesity is a disease’ article said dieting was less important. They also reported less concern about weight compared to obese participants who read the other two articles.
Dr Hoyt said: “Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences.”
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