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Obesity Label Tied to Psychological Effects

Update Date: Jan 28, 2014 10:35 AM EST

In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity a disease. By categorizing obesity as an illness, the association hoped that doctors and patients would address the health condition more seriously. A new study is reporting that this particular label could have negative psychological effects on obese patients.

"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," stated researcher Crystal Hoyt reported by Medical Xpress. "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."

For this study, the research team composed of psychological scientists Hoyt and Jeni Burnette of the University of Richmond, and Lisa Auster-Gussman of the University of Minnesota set out to examine the effects of the disease label on obese people. The team gathered over 700 volunteers to participate in an online survey. The participants were given different articles to read about health and weight. Some of the participants read about obesity being a disease whereas others read about the how obesity is not a disease. Another article talked about the standard public health message in regards to weight. All of the participants answered questions afterwards.

The researchers found that the articles had an effect on the participants' attitudes in relation to health, diet and weight. The team reported that for obese volunteers that read the "obesity is a disease" article, they ended up placing less importance on health-focused diets. They also expressed less concern over their weights in relation to other obese participants that read the other articles. On top of this, the group of people reading this specific article chose foods that were higher in calorie counts.

"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," said Hoyt. "In addition, we are also interested in investigating the role of this message in reducing stigma against the obese."

The findings were published in Psychological Science.

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