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Behavior, Psychology and Sociology

Framing obesity a disease: Indirect effects of affect and controllability beliefs on weight bias

International Journal of Obesityvolume 42pages18041811 (2018) | Download Citation



Obesity has been declared a disease by the American and Canadian Medical Associations. Although these declarations sparked much debate as to the impact of framing obesity as a disease on weight bias, strong empirical research is needed to examine this impact. The current study examined the impact of framing obesity a disease on weight bias, focusing on moderating and mediating processes.


A sample of 309 participants living in the United States or Canada was recruited from Crowdflower. Participants completed measures of demographics, ideology, general attitudes, and previous contact quality and quantity with people living with obesity. Participants then read one of three articles as part of an experimental manipulation framing obesity as a disease, obesity not as a disease, and a control article unrelated to obesity. Post-manipulation included measures of affect, disgust, empathy, blame, and weight bias.


Orthogonal contrasts were used to compare the obesity-disease condition to the obesity-not-disease condition and control condition. The manipulation had a direct effect on affect (emotions), such that affect toward individuals with obesity was more positive in the obesity-disease condition than the obesity-not-disease and control condition combined. Exploration of moderating effects revealed that both the belief in a just world and weight satisfaction moderated the relationship between the obesity-disease manipulation and blame for obesity. Two models of indirect effects on weight bias were also examined, which demonstrated that the obesity-disease manipulation predicted less weight bias through more positive affect (model 1) as well as less weight bias through decreased blame among individuals high in belief in a just world (model 2).


This study further highlights the complex effects of declaring obesity a disease, uncovering a new direction for future research into the role of affect as well as indirect effects of characterising obesity a disease on weight bias.

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    A disproportionate number of participants in the obesity-not-disease condition failed the attention check. These participants may have misremembered the article as stating obesity as a disease given the other health-relevant information present or may have misread the article. No differences were found between groups on gender, BMI, age, highest level of education, or satisfaction with body weight or shape


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SN is currently funded by a Doctoral Research Award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. ASA was previously funded by a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research at the University of Calgary and is currently supported by a Research Scholar Junior 1 Award from les Fonds de Recherche du Québec- Santé at Concordia University, Montreal. This research was funded by a University of Calgary Research Grants Council Grant.

Author information


  1. Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

    • Sarah Nutter
    •  & Shelly Russell-Mayhew
  2. Department of Exercise Science, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

    • Angela S. Alberga
  3. Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

    • Cara MacInnis
    •  & John H. Ellard


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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Shelly Russell-Mayhew.

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