Illuminated Edges of Paper

Language Betrays Our Understanding of Obesity

Words matter. The language we use to describe and discuss obesity conveys and sometimes betrays our understanding of this complex, chronic disease. It betrays that understanding because our implicit biases about obesity are sometimes at odds with our explicit, rational knowledge of it.

With a new paper in Gastroenterology Clinics of North America, Ted Kyle, Scott Kahan, and Joe Nadglowski describe the importance of the language that frames and shapes our response to obesity.

Language to Stigmatize and Dehumanize

Because obesity is such a stigmatized condition, the language we use carries great importance. Kyle et al explain:

“The language we use to frame discourse about obesity can either perpetuate those misperceptions or alternately help to shape more accurate perceptions. Language is also an important tool for expressing implicit bias in social interactions and in clinical care. Over time, the words we use not only reflect the attitudes we have but may also shape implicit beliefs. Stigmatizing language such as ‘morbidly obese’ or ‘recidivism’ have no place in professional or public discourse about obesity.”

Moral Panic

Years of hyperbolic language about the threat of obesity has done more to fuel moral panic about this condition than to stimulate a rational and effective response. The language has been all about the problem, with very little (beyond “eat less and move more”) in the way of real solutions that work for real people.

Any marketer will tell you that prompting action requires a balance between describing the problem and offering a good solution. The language of moral panic violates this principle and has done more harm than good.

Labeling and Dehumanizing People as “Obese”

Individuals with a preference for labeling people as “obese” rather than describing obesity as a condition separate from their identity are also more likely to express explicit bias about people with obesity. Notwithstanding the desire of some persons to claim “fat” as part of their identity, a solid consensus tells us that labeling people as “obese” is profoundly unhelpful.

Confusing Weight Loss with Obesity Care

For many people living with obesity, weight loss can be very important and do much to improve their health and quality of life. But even for them, obesity care requires attention to much more than weight loss. Because weight loss is most often a short term process. A year or two at most. But obesity care is a long-term exercise with the aim of optimal health and quality of life over a lifetime – a lifetime that need not be cut short by complications of obesity.

So when public discourse about obesity confuses weight loss with obesity care, it betrays ignorance about the chronic disease of obesity – and the value of chronic care for a chronic disease.

Click here for the new paper by Kyle et al.

Illuminated Edges of Paper, photograph by Dietmar Rabich, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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October 9, 2023

3 Responses to “Language Betrays Our Understanding of Obesity”

  1. October 09, 2023 at 10:50 am, Angie Golden said:

    Thank you!!! I am so fatigued at listening to experts talk about weight loss and weight management as if obesity treatment was only about the scale. Just as diabetes care has a goal for reducing sugar that is not the ONLY thing in the chronic care model for that chronic disease. I am looking forward to reading the full article but this post has brightened my day!!!

  2. October 10, 2023 at 12:24 pm, Dr Torres said:

    I’d like to learn more on why the word Recidivism is considered negative. And I’d like to know what is a better & positive term when describing unintentionally regaining weight that was intentionally lost. I previously thought it was simply about documenting the process of Weight Regain after Weight Loss when discussing results of Scientific Studies.

    • October 11, 2023 at 4:23 am, Ted said:

      Recidivism is defined as “the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.” So recidivism suggests offensive and criminal behavior. Using that term implicitly disparages a person with obesity. A better term is relapse because it refers to reoccurrence of a medical condition.