Not Easy, but Essential: How to Initiate the Weight Conversation

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


November 14, 2012

In This Article

The Language of Body Weight

Addressing obesity has become a public health priority and an issue of clinical importance for medical professionals across the country. Provider-patient discussions about body weight have become increasingly routine in medical visits. Healthcare providers play an important role in addressing weight-related health issues and discussing how patients can improve their lifestyle behaviors to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. However, these conversations can have unintended consequences.

The language that healthcare providers use when discussing body weight can leave patients feeling either stigmatized and blamed, or supported and empowered to improve their lifestyle behaviors. Health professionals have different opinions on what approaches are most helpful when discussing weight-related health with patients. However, some recommendations, even those made by public health officials, have been misguided. For example, in 2010 the British Public Health Minister publicly announced that health providers in Britain should call their obese patients "fat" to motivate them to lose weight -- the rationale being that calling patients "obese" provides insufficient motivation for them to take responsibility for their lifestyles and that calling them "fat" can "jolt patients into losing weight."[1]