Hey food police: calling obesity a 'disease' is actually a health risk

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With much fanfare last summer, the American Medical Association declared that obesity was a disease, and should be treated as such. Psychologists are not so sure, however. A study released Tuesday, in fact, says that labeling obesity as a disease may undermine healthy behaviors.

A trio of researchers say the trend could “encourage the belief that weight is unchangeable and make attempts at weight management seem pointless.” Chubby folks themselves are particularly vulnerable to this belief, they say.

“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 Crystal Hoyt, a psychological scientist with the University of Richmond.

The AMA’s resolution in the matter called obesity a “multimetabolic and hormonal disease state” which could bring on Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“The suggestion that is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes,” the group stated in their resolution.

The researchers disagree, and based their conclusion on a study of 700 people, rating their reactions to the idea that being fat was a medical condition unrelated to overeating and other bad habits. They found that obese respondents in particular placed less importance on health-focused dieting.

“Interestingly, these participants reported greater body satisfaction, which, in turn, also predicted higher-calorie food choices,” the study said.

“These findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences,” Ms. Hoyt says.

The researchers acknowledge 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 - including less motivation to eat healthy. The study - co-authored by Ms. Hoyt with psychologists Jeni Burnette of the University of Richmond and Lisa Auster-Gussman of the University of Minnesota - was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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