Language and Obesity: Putting the Person Before the Disease

Rebecca M. Puhl, PhD


July 24, 2014

People-First Language

People-first language has become the standard for discussing chronic diseases and disabilities, as well as an ethical standard in clinical settings. Many terms that were once commonplace descriptions of populations affected by certain disabilities or diseases are now considered outdated and offensive. For example, "the mentally ill," "disabled," "autistic children," and "the blind" have now been replaced with "persons with mental illness," 'individuals with disabilities," "children with autism," and "people with visual impairments."

These changes have been broadly accepted by national health organizations that similarly advise the use of people-first language; these include the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disability rights movement has further elevated this issue in recent decades, contributing to an increase in the use of people-first language in state statutes. One example is the People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006, first passed in Washington, DC.

With the growing recognition of pervasive weight bias in our society and the influence of people-first language on public attitudes toward persons with disabilities and diseases,[3] calls for the use of people-first language in the context of obesity have been increasing.[4] Leading obesity organizations, such as the Obesity Society and the Obesity Action Coalition, have adopted people-first language, as have scientific journals in the obesity field. The American Medical Association's 2013 classification of obesity as a disease provides additional incentive to use and implement people-first language with obesity.

Healthcare professionals can play an important role in shaping attitudes toward disease and disability, and obesity is no exception. The ways in which physicians, nurses, and medical students talk about patients and people with diseases influences societal perceptions of those populations. Often, the common medical-speak among health professionals involved in the prevention and treatment of obesity focuses on "obese patients," "treating the obese diabetic," or identifying promising treatments for "the obese."

People-first language instead calls upon health professionals to refer to "persons with obesity" or "individuals affected by obesity." Thus, when obesity is discussed with colleagues, students in training, or patients in the medical office, we need to practice these examples and promote a dialogue that addresses obesity separately from the person. Adopting people-first language affords individuals with obesity the same respect and dignity as persons with other diseases. Just as we do not refer to people with cancer as "cancerous people," or people living with HIV and AIDS as "AIDS victims," we need to put individuals with obesity before their disease, because they too are people first.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.