The study included more than 700 people who took part in an online survey. They were asked to read an article about health and weight, and then to answer a number of questions. Some of the participants read an article that described obesity as a disease, some read a standard public health message about weight, and the remainder read an item that said obesity is not a disease.
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The researchers found that obese people who read the article stating that obesity is a disease were less concerned about their weight and placed less importance on eating a healthy diet, compared to obese people who read the other two articles.
The obese participants who read the "obesity is a disease" article also had higher levels of body satisfaction, which was associated with choosing higher calorie foods, according to the psychological scientists at the University of Richmond and the University of Minnesota.
Their findings were published online in the journal Psychological Science.
Reducing the stigma
The study was conducted after the American Medical Association (AMA) declared obesity a disease in June 2013. The researchers wondered if labelling obesity a disease could make people believe that their weight can't be changed, making efforts to control weight seem useless.
The findings suggest that calling obesity a disease may have some negative effects. However, the researchers also noted that there are potential benefits in labelling obesity a disease, including promoting greater acceptance of different body sizes and reducing the stigma of being obese.
"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," Crystal Hoyt, of the University of Richmond, said in a journal news release.
"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," she explained.