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Psychological problems may be associated with a disease label of obesity

Harold Mandel's picture
An obese woman

The obesity epidemic is serious. Stories about this epidemic have been permeating the news. In spite of an increased awareness of the rising incidence of obesity and associated serious health problems, there appears to be more people addicted to unhealthy, fattening food and drinks than ever before. In 2013 the American Medical Association labeled obesity as being a disease. New research implies the label of obesity as a disease may have negative psychological consequences.

Researchers decided to examine the consequences of the public health message associated with labeling obesity as a disease, reported the journal Psychological Science. According to this study messages that describe obesity as being a disease may undermine healthy behaviors and beliefs among people who are obese. It was seen from the findings that obese people who were exposed to such messages placed less importance on health focused dieting and reported less concern about their weight. These beliefs were found to predict unhealthier food choices.

After the American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity a disease in June 2013, psychological scientists Crystal Hoyt and Jeni Burnette of the University of Richmond and Lisa Auster-Gussman of the University of Minnesota, decided to explore the effects of health and diet messaging, reports the Association for Psychological Science in a discussion of this research. Hoyt has said, “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.”

The experts have opened up debates dealing with the merits of, and problems associated with, the new AMA policy. These researchers decided to jump into the debate with a focus on the psychological repercussions associated with labeling obesity as a disease. The researchers hypothesized that labeling obesity as a disease could encourage the belief that weight can not be changed with the development of feelings that weight management seems pointless, particularly among obese people.

Over 700 participants were recruited for this study. The participants read an article which was related to health and weight and then they answered various questions. Some of the participants read an article which described obesity as a disease, and some read a standard public-health message about weight, while others read an article which specifically stated that obesity is not a disease. The results indicated that the particular message which obese participants read had a very clear impact on their attitudes toward health, diet, and weight.

It was highlighted that obese participants who read the “obesity is a disease” article did not place as much importance on health-focused dieting and reported less concern for weight than obese participants who read the other two articles. This group also chose higher-calorie options when they were asked to pick a sandwich from a menu. It was interesting to also note that these participants reported greater body satisfaction, which, in turn, also served as a predictor of higher-calorie food choices.

Hoyt has said, “Together, these findings suggest that the messages individuals hear about the nature of obesity have self-regulatory consequences." It is felt that there may be benefits to the disease focused message, such as promoting greater acceptance of various body sizes and reducing stigma, which could help obese individuals engage with health- and weight-related goals. However, there may also be some hidden costs to the “obesity is a disease” message, including not as much motivation to eat healthy. It is hoped by the researchers that their work will spark further discussion and inquiry by other researchers and practitioners.

Whether or not you accept the labeling of obesity as a disease or not, clearly this is nevertheless a serious condition which is associated with a myriad of health problems. A good way to approach the problem of obesity is to change your lifestyle, reports the U.S. National Library of Medicine via PubMed Health. The safest way to lose weight is an active lifestyle and a lot of exercise, along with healthy eating. New, healthy ways of eating should be made a part of your daily routine.

It's hard for many people to change their eating habits and behaviors. It takes a lot of motivation to make healthy lifestyle changes away from unhealthy habits. It may help to work closely with your health care provider and dietitian to set up a realistic, low calorie diet. Your health care team can help you learn about:

1: Healthy food choices

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2: Healthy snacks

3: How to read nutrition labels

4: New ways to prepare food

5: Portion sizes

6: Sweetened drinks

You should also remember that extreme diets of less than 1,100 calories per day are not considered to be safe or to work very well. There are often not enough vitamins and minerals in these kinds of diets. You should also learn new ways to manage stress, instead of snacking. Good considerations may include:

1: Meditation

2: Yoga

3: Exercise

I think the debate about the positive versus negative aspects of labeling obesity as an epidemic has merit. The most significant consideration herein is that all efforts should continue to be made to impress upon people just how dangerous obesity can be. I find that people become increasingly concerned when they consider the association of obesity with heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

There appears to be considerations of the psychological impact of being obese whether or not this condition is considered a disease. So while the debate continues about the labeling of obesity as a disease by the American Medical Association, the most important thing is to continue to deal with obesity as a serious condition which should be treated carefully. This condition becomes even harder to treat when you consider that if you are addicted to food you may have an impulsive personality, as I have reported upon in a separate article for EmaxHealth.