Is Calling Obesity A 'Disease' A Bad Thing?

by Lulu Chang

Mind over matter has taken a slightly unhealthy turn, according to new obesity research. A team at the University of Richmond found through a series of studies that obese individuals who subscribed to the notion that obesity is a disease were more likely to consume high-calorie foods. While these individuals were also more satisfied with their body image — which can't be a bad thing — they were also less concerned with their weight and subsequent health risks.

Last summer, the American Medical Association deemed obesity a disease. There is no set definition for what qualifies as a disease and the A.M.A. has no legal power, but many believed that this recognition would draw more attention to the problem. Dr. Patrice Harris, a member of the A.M.A. board, said in a statement, “Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans."

But even last year, critics against the ruling were wary about the potential negative side effects of calling obesity a disease. The Council on Science and Public Health was opposed to classifying obesity as an illness, writing:

Given the existing limitations of B.M.I. to diagnose obesity in clinical practice, it is unclear that recognizing obesity as a disease, as opposed to a ‘condition’ or ‘disorder,’ will result in improved health outcomes.

Moreover, the Council was concerned that “medicalizing” obesity could lead to an increased reliance on drugs and surgery rather than lifestyle changes, which are often more effective and necessary when dealing with obesity. However, the Council did note that the disease classification would help to eliminate the stigma associated with obesity, combatting the general public consensus that obesity is simply a product of overeating and under-exercising.

Now, in a New York Times op-ed, Crystal L. Hoyt and Jeni Burnette, who conducted the new study about the effects of obesity's disease classification, considered the "psychological ramifications" of obesity as a disease. They asked:

Would it reduce or add to the burden of body-image concerns and shame? Would it empower people to fight back, or lead to a fatalistic acceptance of being overweight?

And their concerns were well-founded, according to their studies' results. Along with Lisa Auster-Gussman from the University of Minnesota, the women conducted three separate studies of more than 700 participants. Some were assigned to read the 2013 New York Times article about the A.M.A.'s decision to call obesity a disease; others were asked to read either a public health message about weight-loss, or another article that claimed that obesity was not, in fact, a disease.

The results are fascinating. Those who read the New York Times article subsequently chose menu items that had seven percent more calories than obese participants in the control condition group. Researchers believe that because participants who read the Times article were ore likely to think that weight is an unchangeable condition, a 'disease', they made fewer attempts to manage their weight.

The researchers go on to say that while recognizing obesity as a disease has certainly helped to draw more attention to the prevalence of the issue, and "may make people feel better about their bodies, it also may contribute to the maintenance, rather than reduction, of obesity." As such, what is needed is a two-pronged approach: one that both negates the guilt associated with obesity while simultaneously catalyzing individuals to change their lifestyles and actively seek weight loss techniques.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have just released new figures that show that more than a third of American children are overweight or obese and are linked to healthcare costs of $19,000 more than normal weight children, the need for a solution has never been more pressing.