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Labeling Obesity a Disease May Discourage Weight Loss


Nobody likes to be called fat, let alone obese. This is especially true ever since the condition was officially labeled a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) last June. Now a new study published in the journal of Psychological Science confirms that patients who were classified as obese felt less hopeful about their situation and therefore continued their unhealthy habits. [Tweet this news!]  Some even chose to eat more higher-calorie foods, deeming dieting pointless—and reigniting the debate about calling obesity a disease.

Most doctors will tell you that the change was necessary. “The label is hugely important because that's the only way that you're going to get medical reimbursement from your insurance company for treatment,” says Christopher Ochner, Ph.D., assistant professor in pediatrics, adolescent medicine, and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “This is particularly crucial for low-income families who otherwise couldn't afford to get obesity treatment."

Before it was called a disease, obesity was considered a lifestyle choice, which placed all the blame on patients. Under this new label, it helps patients share the responsibility with insurance companies. “Most medical centers didn't carry any obesity programs because it wasn't reimburse-able. But now that it is, patients have much more access to help, such as seeing a dietitian,” Ochner says.

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But this doesn't make the word itself any less hurtful. Sure, it acknowledges that there are other factors, like genetics, at play beyond behavioral, but it doesn't erase the long-held stigma the comes with gaining so much weight. This is one reason why some doctors avoid the o-word altogether.

“Most people who are in the category of obesity really dislike that term. When they hear it, they don't think, 'Body mass index is greater than 30.' Instead they hear 'lazy,' 'no-self control,' and all of these negative terms,” says board-certified bariatric physician Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D., co-founder of bistroMD, a national weight-loss company. “Sometimes when you tell a patient they are in the 'obese range', they might get insulted and not hear anything afterward."

A better way to empower patients may be to change the conversation, she says. “Using phrases like 'weight problem' or 'gained 25 pounds' can make people feel like they can still do something about it. Every single person has a 'weight'. There's a neutral ownership to it like with any vital sign, such as blood pressure. If we talk about it in that way that makes it feel less about being their fault and more about responsibility, then they may try harder to find what works for them.”

What do you think? Should obesity be considered a disease? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine.


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