Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Is 'obesity' a dirty word even for doctors?

If your doctor wants to address the excess weight you're carrying, she's being advised not to use loaded words such as "obesity" – even if it's the proper medical term.

According to a new study of 390 obese patients, certain phrases can lead people to clam up and stop talking about the issue with their physician.



"Obesity" isn't neutral, lead author Sheri Volger, project manager at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine told Postmedia News. "It's judgmental and it has negative attributes. … You're imposing blame on the person; the thought may be that this person is obese and that they're at fault for the situation."

Story continues below advertisement

With as few at 12 per cent of doctors telling their obese patients to lose weight, Ms. Volger said language might be a barrier.

"By identifying how patients prefer to be talked to, we're hoping to facilitate the dialogue," she said.

Study participants completed a questionnaire that asked them to rank how desirable it was to hear various terms from their doctor.

"Fatness" was at the bottom of the list, followed by "excess fat," "large size," "obesity" and "heaviness." A more desirable term was "weight" – perhaps because it seems less judgmental, according to the researchers.

Ms. Volger said discussions about weight "should be framed around other health issues," the Gazette reports.

"You could say something like, 'Mr. Jones, nice to see you today, I see your blood pressure is a little high. I also noticed you're 10 pounds overweight. Do you know if you lost some weight your blood pressure could go down?'" she said.

Arya Sharma, the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network says the group's upcoming recommendations will advise doctors to tread lightly and, for instance, ask a patient's permission before raising the weight issue.

Story continues below advertisement

"There is no room for shame or blame in obesity management," Dr. Sharma told Postmedia.

These efforts fly in the face of tough-love efforts that others have recently been promoting. In 2007, the American Medical Association urged doctors to use the medical terms obese and overweight in more cases.



More recently, a new public-health initiative to stem childhood obesity in Georgia raised eyebrows for featuring obviously obese children and frank language.

Which approach would you want your doctor to take if you needed to lose weight?

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.