Last year the American Medical Association voted to recognize obesity as a disease. In a June 18, 2013, press release, AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris explained:
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans.”
This may seem like a simple matter of nomenclature, but a new paper confirms that how obesity is described can have important implications for people’s judgments and decisions.
Three experiments by Crystal Hoyt and colleagues, recently published in Psychological Science, found that presenting obese people with a passage that described obesity as a disease decreased the dissatisfaction they reported about their own bodies, but also made them more likely to select a high-calorie sandwich from a list of options.
As the researchers explain in their paper:
“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.”
Consistent with these ideas, other studies have found that describing obesity in biological terms can decrease the perception that people have control over their weight, and it can also influence behavior: reading a fictional news story about “obesity genes,” for example, led participants to eat more cookies in a subsequent task.
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