Should we refer to obesity as a disease?

I just read an interesting paper reviewing a few articles looking at the effects of a disease-based approach to obesity education. In brief, the authors reviewed previous studies they had carried out. On June 18th, 2013 the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease. The authors of this study found that when given the message through a New York Times article that obesity is a disease, obese people were less concerned about their weight, less interested in dieting, and made higher-calorie food decisions compared to a similar group of people (the control group) who were given a alternative (non-disease based) informational description of obesity. Interestingly, people in the study who were presented with the information that obesity is a disease reported lower levels of body dissatisfaction.

In summary, telling people that obesity is a disease might make them happier with their weight, while simultaneously making them less likely to lose weight. It is obviously very important that people be happy with themselves at whatever weight they are at, especially given the degree of shame imposed upon overweight people. Nevertheless, the resulting increased risk of other health problems that either are caused by obesity or co-occur with obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, and even some kinds of cancer certainly puts a burden on health care practitioners to be careful in such nuances as to how they refer to obesity (as a disease, or as a result of lifestyle choices).

TLDR. Calling obesity a disease makes obese people feel better about their weight, but also makes them less interested in losing weight, and less likely to make healthy decisions.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll read a few related articles and report on how the authors’ conclusions hold up. For the near future my blog will stick to this style, reporting on an interesting paper I have read recently.

Crystal L. Hoyt, Jeni L. Burnette and Lisa Auster-Gussman (2014) ‘Obesity Is a Disease”: Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message. Psychological Science. 25: 997 originally published online 24 January 2014. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613516981

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