Labeling obesity as a disease may have psychological costs

January 28, 2014

Messages that describe obesity as a disease may undermine healthy behaviors and beliefs among obese individuals, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings show that exposed to such messages placed less importance on health-focused dieting and reported less concern about weight. These beliefs, in turn, predicted unhealthier food choices.

Psychological scientists Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette of the University of Richmond and Lisa Auster-Gussman of the University of Minnesota were interested in exploring the effects of health and diet messaging after the American Medical Association (AMA) declared a disease in June 2013.

"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," says 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."

Hoyt and colleagues hypothesized that labeling obesity as a disease could encourage the belief that weight is unchangeable and make attempts at weight management seem pointless, especially among obese individuals—the very people that the public-health messages are targeting.

The researchers recruited over 700 participants to take part in an online survey across three different studies. Participants read an article related to health and weight and then answered various questions. Importantly, some participants read an article that described obesity as a disease, some read a standard public-health message about weight, and others read an article specifically stating that obesity is not a disease.

Height and weight data were used to calculate participants' and to classify participants as "average weight" or "obese," in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

Results showed that the particular message obese participants read had a clear impact on their attitudes toward health, diet, and weight.

Specifically, obese participants who read the "obesity is a disease" article placed less importance on health-focused dieting and reported less concern for weight relative to obese participants who read the other two articles. They also chose higher-calorie options when asked to pick a sandwich from a provided menu.

Interestingly, these participants reported greater body satisfaction, which, in turn, also predicted higher-calorie .

"Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences," says Hoyt. The researchers point out that there may be benefits to the disease-focused message, such as promoting greater acceptance of diverse body sizes and reducing stigma, which may help obese individuals engage with health- and weight-related goals.

The new findings indicate, however, that there may be some hidden costs to the "obesity is a disease" message, including less motivation to eat healthy.

Hoyt and colleagues caution that more research is needed to gain a clearer understanding of both the costs and benefits of such health-related messaging before the findings can be put into practice.

"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 ," says Hoyt. "In addition, we are also interested in investigating the role of this message in reducing stigma against the obese."

The researchers hope that their work "sparks further discussion and inquiry by researchers and practitioners alike."

Explore further: Emphasizing environmental causes of obesity is motivating

More information: pss.sagepub.com/content/early/ … 97613516981.abstract

Related Stories

Emphasizing environmental causes of obesity is motivating

December 26, 2013
(HealthDay)—Messages that acknowledge personal responsibility, while emphasizing environmental causes of obesity, seem to motivate individuals to engage in healthy diet and exercise behavior, according to a study published ...

'Weightism' increases risk for becoming, staying obese

July 24, 2013
Weight discrimination may increase risk for obesity rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, according to research published July 24 in the open access journal PLoS ONE by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano ...

Study links 'food addiction' to obesity

September 30, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—University of Queensland researchers have found most Australians and Americans believe food is addictive and comparable to drug addiction.

New study paints grim health picture for obese teens

November 18, 2013
(HealthDay)—Severely obese teens are at increased risk for a host of serious health problems as adults, including asthma, kidney disease and sleep disorders, according to a new study.

Overweight, obese are risks for heart disease regardless of metabolic syndrome

November 11, 2013
Being overweight or obese are risk factors for myocardial infarction (heart attack) and ischemic heart disease (IHD) regardless of whether individuals also have the cluster of cardiovascular risk factors known as metabolic ...

Female fat prejudice persists even after weight loss, study finds

May 29, 2012
Overweight women may never escape the painful stigma of obesity – even after they have shed the pounds, new research suggests.

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.