Could labelling obesity a 'disease' be a bad thing?

Thinkstock/Vision Images
Thinkstock/Vision Images

Like lung cancer, diabetes and alcoholism, obesity is now officially classified as a disease by the American Medical Association.

But that decision, made in June, may actually wind up triggering more harm than good, according to a new study by a trio of psychologists.

“Reading about the decision to label obesity as a disease predicted lower concern for weight, less focus on health goals, and higher calorie food choice,” researcher Crystal Hoyt, of the University of Richmond, tells Yahoo Shine about what she and fellow researchers found.

In other words, when people learned their obesity was a disease, they felt less responsible for it, and, in turn, consumed more calories. Interestingly, they were also more able to let down their guard — which does have an upside, the researchers discovered: emotional lift.

“We have evidence that the ‘obesity is a disease’ messages reduce body dissatisfaction for obese individuals,” Hoyt notes. “We are also in the process of examining if the ‘disease’ message can help reduce stigma. For example, might this message make evaluations of others, not just the self, more positive?”

For the study, Hoyt and her colleagues surveyed more than 700 participants who read an article related to health and weight — only some of which described obesity as a disease — and then answered various questions about their habits and attitudes. And while the findings were mixed, one outcome was clear: There may be some hidden costs to the “obesity is a disease” message, including less motivation to eat healthily.

Since June, the classification has inspired debates similar to those that have been ongoing since the AMA’s controversial decision to label alcoholism a disease in 1956, with some arguing that, while calling it a disease reduces one stigma, it introduces another — that of being hopelessly, permanently “abnormal.”

“The ‘disease’ designation becomes a prescription for inaction,” Hank Cardello, director of the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, writes in a debate on the AMA’s obesity decision in U.S. News & World Report. “Those with the shakiest willpower — which includes all but a small percentage of disciplined Americans — will lose big.”

Meanwhile, Joe Nadglowski, president and CEO of the Obesity Action Coalition, writes about why he's all for the idea of putting obesity in the disease category.

“If we look at other diseases, such as alcoholism or mental illness, we can easily see how these groups struggled before their illnesses were classified as a disease,” he notes, also in U.S. News & World Report. “Obesity has often been labeled with statements such as, ‘You should eat less and exercise more,’ or ‘It's your fault. Take some responsibility.’ But the ‘personal responsibility’ argument for obesity is ineffective … For years, this same label was applied to alcoholism and drug addiction; however, today, we clearly take these issues very seriously and treat them as diseases.”

Hoyt acknowledges the ongoing arguments, and notes that they're what motivated the researchers to kick off their study in the first place. “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,” she says.

But the study's results aren't going to halt the theorizing anytime soon. Nicole Avena, a New Jersey-based research neuroscientist and author of Why Diets Fail tells Yahoo Shine that she still believes the obesity-as-disease message will be helpful in the long run. “Think about the other diseases out there, like cancer,” she says. “When people find out they have a disease, they fight it. So I think it can empower people. I don’t necessarily think it will be an excuse to give up.”

Five million Australians are obese and if weight gain continues at current levels, by 2025, close to 80% of all Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese, according to Monash University .

A 2013 report by the Australia and New Zealand Obesity Society showed that obesity imposed an estimated $2 billion in direct costs on Australia’s health system in 2008. Additionally, obese people face health care costs that are 30 percent higher than those with more healthy body weights.


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