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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.”