How to destigmatize obesity in clinical settings


A recent study found a significant amount of negative terminology surrounding obesity in scientific literature. In addition, researchers found that stigmatized language had a negative impact on patients with obesity. 

The study, published in the research journal Obesity, was conducted by researchers at the Obesity Society in Silver Spring, Md. The study sought to determine how widespread the use of negative terminology surrounding obesity is in scientific publications, and the effects those negative words have on patients. Researchers began their investigation by identifying two standard terms within obesity publications which had negative connotations: “fail” and “morbid.” Then, the team carried out a literature search to determine their prevalence. Finally, researchers conducted a parallel quantitative analysis on patients with obesity to determine the terms’ impact.

In total, 3,020 papers were screened. The results showed that 2.4 percent of the papers included the word fail and 16.8 percent included the word “morbid.” Sixteen patients participated in the qualitative analysis. In general, they had negative reactions to both terms, particularly the word “fail,” which they said assigned blame to patients who struggle to lose weight.

“All healthcare professionals should be aware of this research and consider their use of language when talking about obesity with colleagues and patients,” said Richard Welbourn, MD, FRCS, of the department of Upper Gastrointestinal and Bariatric Surgery, Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, United Kingdom, and corresponding author of the study. “Non-judgmental, standardized terminology may help patients feel safe to engage in a conversation about weight and potential treatment options.”