When Talking About Weight, Words Matter

Sep 26, 2011

Doctors may want to think carefully about the language they use when talking with parents about a child’s weight.  A new study by Yale University researchers finds that certain words reinforce negative stigma and may undermine important discussions about health.

Last year, Britain’s public health minister made a surprising recommendation, reported here by the ITN news service. "A health minister has suggested that GP’s and other health professionals should tell people they’re fat, rather than obese. Anne Milton said the term fat was more likely to motivate people into losing weight adding it was important people took personal responsibility for their lifestyles."

Rebecca Puhl,  director of Research at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, says that may not be a helpful recommendation. "We knew from research that many people perceive language like ‘fat’ to be pejorative and judgmental."

Obesity rates among children have increased four-fold in the past 40 years according to the National Institutes of Health. And Puhl says with as many as many as 50% of America’s children struggling with their weight,  its important for health care providers to find ways to talk productively about the problem. Her new study surveyed American parents with kids ages 2 to 18 years old. "And what we found was that language that was neutral, like the word ‘weight’ or ‘BMI’, was perceived to be much more desirable, much less stigmatizing compared to words like ‘fat’, or ‘morbid obesity’ or ‘obesity’."

And this held true whether or not the parent or child surveyed was overweight.  Parents also reported troubling reactions if they felt a child was stigmatized because of his or her weight. "We found that about 35% would actually seek a new provider and about ¼ would avoid future medical appointments."

The study is published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.