obesity disease

Study: Labeling Obesity as a Disease Changes How We Think

August 11, 2014

In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) recognized obesity as a disease. While the AMA was not the first major organization to classify obesity as a disease, the announcement stirred discussion and debate within the healthcare community and society.

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans. The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.” - AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D.

Classifying obesity as a disease recognized that there are several elements to the complex health issue that are beyond the control of obese individuals. The recognition was meant to reduce the existing blame that obesity is a self-inflicted condition merely caused by poor lifestyle choices. While improving health outcomes for those affected by obesity is a positive step forward, as is reducing stigmas related to obesity, new research indicates there might be an unexpected negative aspect to labeling obesity as a disease.

Researcher, Crystal L. Hoyt, from the University of Richmond, conducted three research studies.  The results indicate that considering obesity as a disease affects thoughts that can undermine weight loss efforts.  Hoyt, and her team of researchers, conducted studies with 700 participants affected by obesity. In one study on thoughts, the participants were asked to read a New York Times article about the AMA recognizing obesity as a disease. After reading the article, participants were more likely to select high caloric sandwiches from a menu. However, the study also indicated participants reported a decrease in the dissatisfaction about their own bodies.

“The term "disease" suggests that bodies, physiology, and genes are malfunctioning. By invoking physiological explanations for obesity, the "disease" label encourages the perception that weight is unchangeable." - Crystal L. Hoyt

While removing the blame from obesity can lead individuals to feel more satisfaction with their bodies, it can also make people feel less optimistic about prospects for recovery. There should not be confusion between biological factors, such as genetics, which one has no control and non-biological factors for which one can control. There are many diseases that result from predisposition or genetics in which medical treatment is still sought to improve overall health. With those diseases there is not a mindset to give up because of genetics. It would appear that societal influences regarding obesity still affect perception.

The idea that obesity is “not our fault” should not equate to a "do nothing" attitude. Healthy diet and exercise are still treatments for diabetes and other metabolic conditions associated with obesity. Perhaps it is the association between weight and health that need to be re-thought and to move away from the use of  BMI to classify obesity.


obesity disease