RSS Feeds

Psychological impacts of obesity as 'disease'

Tuesday - 2/11/2014, 9:14am  ET

In this June 17, 2013 photo, two women cross the street in Barre, Vt. In its biggest policy change on weight and health to date, the American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

WASHINGTON - Nine months ago when the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease, reactions from advocates and critics erupted immediately.

Supporters argued that the classification could better help overweight and obese people obtain treatment, such as counseling in nutrition and exercise. Making obesity a disease could also make research funding more readily available.

However, others argued the classification may result in an increase in pharmacological reactions, instead of preventative measures, and a potential decrease in personal responsibility when it comes to weight management.

The controversial reaction is why two University of Richmond researchers wanted to closely examine the psychological ramifications of labeling obesity a disease.

"Calling it a disease will make people take it more seriously," says psychological scientist Crystal Hoyt, an associate professor at the University in Richmond.

But Hoyt explains with the declaration comes some potential costs.

"When we hear the word, ‘disease,' often times we think, ‘That's something that's in my genes, it's in my physiology, I can't really control it.' So what does that mean in the obesity context?"

Hoyt and her colleague, Jeni Burnette, assistant professor at University of Richmond, and Lisa Auster-Gussman of the University of Minnesota, decided to explore the speculations of the subject in greater detail. Their findings were recently published in Psychological Science.

The researchers hypothesized that labeling obesity a disease could encourage the belief that weight is unchangeable, thereby placing less importance on health-focused dieting.

Results from the three study, 700-participant survey showed that specific messages regarding the state of obesity does impact attitudes towards health, diet and weight.

Participants classified as obese showed less concern for weight and less of a focus on healthy eating when exposed to a message discussing obesity as a disease. These participants also chose higher-calorie food options when asked to select a sandwich from a provided menu.

"We also think that at an overall level, that this has to do with mindsets. And the way in which obesity is described as a disease sets up a mindset that people think it's a fixed entity, that their weight and their health are not changeable, and therefore they're less motivated to engage in healthy behaviors and their attitudes also show less motivation towards these types of healthy behaviors," Burnette says.

However, these participants reported greater body satisfaction when exposed to messages on obesity as a disease.

Hoyt says the concerns surrounding the disease classification is very complicated, but the decrease in stigma surrounding obesity is an obvious benefit. That is, as long as motivation to eat healthy still carries over with the decrease in stigma.

"Often times the stigma against obese stems from this perception of controllability, that people can control the extra weight they have on them, and thus we are going to blame them for their extra weight and this results in prejudice of obese. If you decrease this idea of controllability, then that might decrease the stigma," Hoyt says.

And that's a line of research Hoyt and Burnette are looking at right now.

"All of this is to say that this issue is quite complicated and this is just one set of studies … and I think they contribute to this larger conversation that the AMA is having."

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

© 2014 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.