In 2013, the American Medical Association labeled obesity as a disease. Subsequent research suggests that this public-health message may have significant psychological impacts — with potentially mixed results.
According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science in January 2014 and updated in April, obese participants who were told that obesity is a disease expressed a reduced sense of body dissatisfaction as a result.
Yet they also reported less general concern about their weight, placed less importance on eating well, and chose less-healthy food options, according to the study authors.
“Calling obesity a disease may make people feel better about their bodies, but it also may contribute to the maintenance, rather than reduction, of obesity,” say psychological scientists Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette, leaders of the study’s research team at Virginia’s University of Richmond.
The researchers surveyed more than 700 people classified as either “average weight” or “obese” according to World Health Organization guidelines. Participants read health-related messages, then answered questions on health, weight, weight loss, and eating behavior. They also chose a sandwich with options ranging from 230 to 980 calories.
According to the researchers, obese participants who read messages explicitly stating “obesity is a disease” felt less interested in “health-focused” eating and less concerned about weight than other participants. They also selected higher-calorie sandwiches.
The disease-based message “weakened the importance placed on health-focused dieting and reduced concerns about weight among obese individuals,” according to the study. Because this led to higher-calorie food choices, the researchers concluded that the disease label had “negative implications for self-regulation.”
Ultimately, the study suggests that the way we talk about and frame weight issues can have a significant impact on both the attitude and behavior of overweight individuals. More research will be required to identify which messages most reliably lead to lasting motivation and sustainable lifestyle change.