Due to subsequent health factors including heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, many health care organizations have decided to redefine obesity as a disease. Since the new definition of obesity was accepted, many skeptics have wondered if this position will be detrimental to our health by undermining the necessity of controlling our weight through healthy lifestyle choices. A study based on the psychology behind the “obesity is a disease” message has revealed people who accept obesity as a disease are more inclined to consume higher calorie meals.

“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,” lead researcher and psychological scientist with the University of Richmond Crystal Hoyt said in a statement. “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.”

Obesity was officially recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association on June 18, 2013. In the hopes of discovering the effect labeling obesity as a disease has on people with weight issues, Hoyt and her colleagues asked 700 study participants to read separate articles and complete an online survey regarding its significance. One group read a June 18, 2013 New York Times article titled "A.M.A. Recognizes Obesity as a Disease." Other articles included one concerning health and weight, one that maintained obesity is not a disease, and finally, a public health message about weight.

Researchers also classified each respondent as “average weight” or “obese” by using the World Health Organization’s guidelines for calculating a person’s body mass index through height and weight. Although Hoyt and her colleagues admitted the “obesity is a disease” message provided some benefits, including an acceptance for people struggling with obesity and removing the stigma surrounding obese people, this perception can also lead people to abandon healthy eating. Participants in the “obese” category who read the NYT article picked a higher-calorie option when asked to choose between sandwiches. This group also admitted to being less concerned about healthy dieting and their weight compared to participants who read the other articles.

“Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences. In our ongoing work, we hope to gain a greater understanding of how the ‘obesity is a disease’ message influences beliefs about the controllability of weight,” Hoyt added. “In addition, we are also interested in investigating the role of this message in reducing stigma against the obese.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of the U.S. adult population is considered obese. The number of people struggling with obesity in the U.S. experienced a dramatic increase between 1999 and 2010. Medical costs related to the treatment and care for people struggling with obesity in the U.S. totaled $147 billion in 2008. Obesity-related conditions including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are considered the leading causes of preventable death.

Source: Auster-Gussman L, Burnette J, Hoyt C. “Obesity Is a Disease” Examining the Self-Regulatory Impact of This Public-Health Message. Psychological Science. 2014.