Choosing words wisely when talking to patients about their weight

July 13, 2012 By Megan Orciari

(Medical Xpress) -- The language that health care providers use when discussing their patients’ body weight can reinforce stigma, reduce motivation for weight loss, and potentially lead to avoidance of future medical appointments, according to a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale.

The study, which appears in the advance online publication of the International Journal of Obesity, examined adults’ perceptions of, and reactions to, common terms used to describe excess body weight by doctors. Researchers found that patients prefer that doctors use neutral language such as “unhealthy weight” rather than words that may be perceived as stigmatizing and blaming, such as “fat” or “morbidly obese.”

The researchers conducted a national survey of American adults, asking their opinions about 10 common terms used to describe excess body weight. These terms included “weight,” “unhealthy weight,” “weight problem,” “overweight,” “high BMI,” “heavy,” “chubby,” “obese,” “fat,” and “morbidly obese.” 

The words “weight” and “unhealthy weight” were rated as the most preferable terminology for doctors to use when discussing excess weight, and “morbidly obese,” “fat” and “obese” were rated as the most stigmatizing and blaming. Participants also rated “unhealthy weight” and “overweight” to be the most motivating terms for encouraging weight loss, versus “fat” or “chubby” which were rated amongst the least motivating terms. These findings remained generally consistent regardless of sociodemographic factors and the participants’ own body weight.

High percentages of normal-weight, overweight, and obese participants reported that they would feel badly about themselves, embarrassed and upset if stigmatized about their weight by a doctor. Additionally, 19% of adults reported they would avoid future medical appointments, and 21% said they would seek a new health care provider if they felt their doctor had stigmatized them about their weight.

Health care providers play a key role in obesity prevention and treatment, but these findings suggest that the terminology doctors use to describe excess body weight may have important implications for a patient’s emotional and physical health, noted the researchers.   

“Although health providers face significant challenges in efforts to prevent and treat obesity, their efforts must begin with a non-stigmatizing conversation with patients about weight and health,” said lead author Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Yale Rudd Center.

The authors assert that using -based terminology that is comfortable for patients may help facilitate a positive, productive discussion that communicates support and respect for in their efforts to become healthier, rather than instill stigma and blame.

Explore further: A doctor's words can enforce weight stigma

More information: The study can be viewed online.

Related Stories

A doctor's words can enforce weight stigma

September 26, 2011
The language that health care providers use when discussing a child's weight with parents can reinforce negative weight-based stigma and jeopardize discussions about health, finds a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy ...

Positive media portrayals of obese individuals reduce weight stigma

February 21, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Presenting obese individuals in a positive, non-stereotypical manner in the media could help reduce weight-biased attitudes held by the public, finds a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity ...

Excess weight in young adulthood predicts shorter lifespan

August 17, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Those 25-year-olds who are overweight now but think they will be fine as long as they lose weight eventually might need to reconsider. A study appearing online in the Journal of Adolescent Health finds ...

Losing the weight but not the stigma

March 9, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Obese people who lose weight will encounter far less social stigma and may even be seen as fitter than if they had been lean all along, but they may still face prejudice relating to how they lost weight, ...

Professor links temperature, obesity

August 11, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Fat dogs are cool. And obese people may be, too. That’s what research by a University of South Carolina Salkehatchie professor suggests.

Recommended for you

Exercise alone does not lead to weight loss in women—in the medium term

November 23, 2017
Knowing whether or not exercise causes people to lose weight is tricky. When people take up exercise, they often restrict their diet – consciously or unconsciously – and this can mask the effects of the exercise. In our ...

Mindfulness training shows promise for maintaining weight loss

November 23, 2017
Can mindfulness training help overweight people shed pounds and keep them off? McGill University researchers surveyed the growing body of studies investigating that question, and came away encouraged.

Shaming overweight kids only makes things worse

November 20, 2017
(HealthDay)—Overweight kids who are shamed or stigmatized are more likely to binge eat or isolate themselves than to make positive changes such as losing weight, a leading pediatricians' group says.

Link between obesity and cancer is not widely recognized

November 17, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Public Health has shown that the majority of people in the United Kingdom do not understand the connection between weight issues and cancer. Obesity is associated with thirteen types ...

Reversing negative effects of maternal obesity

November 8, 2017
A drug that increases energy metabolism may lead to a new approach to prevent obesity in children born to overweight mothers, UNSW Sydney researchers have found.

Serving water with school lunches could prevent child, adult obesity: study

November 7, 2017
Encouraging children to drink plain water with their school lunches could prevent more than half a million youths in the U.S. from becoming overweight or obese, and trim the medical costs and indirect societal costs associated ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PeterD
not rated yet Jul 14, 2012
Makes sense. Change Doctors, and avoid the problem, again and again.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.