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Thinking ‘obesity is a disease’ makes you more likely to eat high-calorie foods, study finds

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On June 18, 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease. The nation’s largest physician organization said the new classification would help turn more medical attention toward obesity, as well as increase reimbursement for obesity-related drugs, surgery, and counseling.

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” said AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D. “The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”

But new psychology research suggests the “obesity is a disease” message actually undermines important weight-loss efforts.

“The term disease suggests that bodies, physiology, and genes are malfunctioning. By invoking physiological explanations for obesity, the disease label encourages the perception that weight is unchangeable,” Crystal L. Hoyt of the University of Richmond and her colleagues wrote in their study, which was published in the April issue of Psychological Science.

In three separate studies with more than 700 participants, the researchers found that obese participants who read a New York Times article about the AMA declaring obesity to be a disease were subsequently less likely to be concerned about their weight and more likely to choose to eat higher-calorie foods.

The “obesity is a disease” message did, however, have a positive impact on body image. Obese participants reported greater body satisfaction after reading the New York Times article. This greater body satisfaction predicted higher-calorie food choices.

“This research illuminates the potential benefits and hidden costs associated with the message that ‘obesity is a disease’ by showing that this message cultivates increased body satisfaction but also undermines beneficial self-regulatory processes in obese individuals,” Hoyt and her colleagues wrote.

The researchers do not dispute that obesity should be classified as a disease. The goal of the study was to better understand how public-health messages can have unintended consequences.

“We are not advocating that the ‘thin’ ideal that pervades Western culture is an admirable goal, nor that internalizing these unhealthy standards is a worthwhile strategy,” they explained. “In addition, we agree that the acceptance of diverse body sizes is laudable, as is the goal to increase medical treatment for obese individuals—themes that emerge in the argument in support of obesity as a disease.”

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  • tobagganski343

    Drug addiction should be treated the same way. Stopped going to 12 step meetings and my life started getting better. If you tell people they’re sick all the time,eventually they’re going to believe you.

    • Phil K

      Unlike some genetic disease, obesity is almost entirely preventable. I understand the AMA’s reasoning to labeling obesity as a disease, though it can be easily associated with it being “destined”. A lot of the times overweight individuals excuse their condition to genetics, bone structure, etc. Now as some people can burn excess fat easier then others, this does not go on to say that someones body make up is destined to become overweight. Lifestyle changes can prevent this, and thus avoid the likely disease outcomes that obesity can lead to.

      • foodandart

        “..Almost entirely preventable..” could be ‘absolutely preventable’ if we as Americans were willing to have that Serious National Talk, about the nature of the refined, processed commodity food being made for, sold to and eaten by the majority who end up with this ‘disease’ ..which in and of itself is less accident than intentional.

        Watch the McFood manufacturers come out and spin like tops when America gets ready – all of us – to work out WHY we are spending so much on our medical care, then start to do something about it.

        • Phil K

          There’s a reason why half the foods, preservatives, GMOs, etc… are banned in Europe… But yes, sadly a lot of what we’re eating is getting us sick, and on top of that, we don’t have the best healthcare coverage (different topic, I know)

  • Ygorbla

    But this doesn’t talk about the important part, which is how it affected their health.

    If they decided that obesity was a disease, and therefore focused on treating it by exercising more and eating a balanced diet rather than trying to lose weight via undereating, they might’ve ended up healthier than they were before. Focusing purely on caloric intake (or even purely on weight) is a mistake — blood pressure is the important number; everything else is only (primarily) relevant to the extent that it affects that. And there are many, many factors that impact your blood pressure.

    • Mncdk

      Assuming you eat at maintenance calories, and then start exercising without altering your caloric intake, you are creating a deficit.
      I agree that cardiovascular health should not be overlooked, but I disagree that it’s bad to eat at a deficit and not exercise (assuming one is obese). Everything in moderation.
      Saying “X is bad” when it’s not that simple, is bad.

    • Matthew Curry Pye

      Undereating is literally the only way to lose weight, though.
      Exercise is just a method by which your total required calories are increased, which causes a calorie deficit in the same manner as eating less.

      • Owen

        Under-eating does not have the same benefits as exercise.