Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Words matter: a qualitative investigation of which weight status terms are acceptable and motivate weight loss when used by health professionals

Cindy M Gray15*, Kate Hunt2, Karen Lorimer23, Annie S Anderson4, Michaela Benzeval2 and Sally Wyke15

Author Affiliations

1 Alliance for Self Care Research, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK

2 MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, 4 Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow, G12 8RZ, UK

3 Institute for Applied Health Research, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow, G4 0BA, UK

4 Centre for Public Health Nutrition Research, University of Dundee, Dundee, DD1 4HN, UK

5 Institute for Health and Wellbeing, College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:513  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-513

Published: 29 June 2011

Abstract

Background

Health professionals have an important role to play in the management of obesity, but may be unsure how to raise weight issues with patients. The societal stigma associated with excess weight means that weight status terms may be misunderstood, cause offence and risk upsetting patient-professional relationships. This study investigated the views of people who were overweight or obese on the acceptability of weight status terms and their potential to motivate weight loss when used by health professionals.

Methods

A qualitative study comprising 34 semi-structured interviews with men and women in their mid-to-late 30s and 50s who were overweight or obese and had recently been informed of their weight status. Thematic framework analysis was conducted to allow the systematic comparison of views by age, gender and apparent motivation to lose weight.

Results

Although many people favoured 'Overweight' to describe their weight status, there were doubts about its effectiveness to motivate weight loss. Terms including 'BMI' ('Body Mass Index') or referring to the unhealthy nature of their weight were generally considered acceptable and motivational, although a number of men questioned the validity of BMI as an indicator of excess weight. Participants, particularly women, felt that health professionals should avoid using 'Fat'. Whilst response to 'Obese' was largely negative, people recognised that it could be appropriate in a health consultation. Some younger people, particularly those who appeared motivated to lose weight, felt 'Obese' could encourage weight loss, but it was also clear the term could provoke negative emotions if used insensitively.

Conclusions

Although most people who are overweight or obese accept that it is appropriate for health professionals to discuss weight issues with patients, there is great variation in response to the terms commonly used to describe excess weight. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to discussing weight status: some men and younger people may appreciate a direct approach, whilst others need to be treated more sensitively. It is therefore important that health professionals use their knowledge and understanding to select the terms that are most likely to be acceptable, but at the same time have most potential to motivate each individual patient.