Obesity Is A Disease Label Leads To Apathy
January 28, 2014

Viewing Obesity As A Disease May Lead To Apathy

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A team of researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science say that labeling obesity as a disease could cause some psychological damage, including apathy about the potential to lose weight.

The American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity to be a disease back in June 2013, so a team from University of Richmond and the University of Minnesota decided to look at how this labeling could effect the psychology of obese individuals.

“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,” psychological scientist Crystal Hoyt from the University of Richmond said in a statement. “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 researchers recruited over 700 participants to take part in an online survey across three different studies. They asked the volunteers to read an article related to health and weight and then answer various questions. Some participants read an article that described obesity as a disease, while others read a standard public-health messages about weight.

Results showed that obese participants who read the article about the AMA’s decision changed their attitude towards health, diet and weight. The team believes that labeling obesity as a disease encourages the belief that weight is unchangeable and makes attempts at weight management seem pointless.

The obese participants who read the “obesity is a disease” article placed less importance on health-focused dieting and less concern for weight relative to obese participants who read the other articles. "Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences," says Hoyt.

The team says that there may be benefits to the disease-focused message, like promoting greater acceptance of body sizes. However, the findings also indicate that this statement comes at a cost, including less motivation to eat healthy. They say more research is needed to gain a better understanding of how AMA’s message could affect the mindset of obese people.

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