Nutrition-wise blog

Recognizing that words carry weight

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. October 4, 2011

Two recent studies have gotten me wondering about common weight terms we use in our nutrition practice — obesity and exercise.

In the first study, Yale researchers looked at parents' perceptions of common terms used to describe excess weight in children. The terms fat, extremely obese and obese were perceived by parents as negative and blaming. These terms were also seen as less likely to encourage weight loss. Instead, terms such as unhealthy weight and weight problem were perceived to be more motivating for weight loss. I suspect that the same holds true when speaking to adults about their excess pounds.

In the second study, University of Michigan researchers looked at rebranding exercise. In other words, using a marketing approach to persuade individuals to exercise. Often health care providers encourage exercise to promote long-term benefits such as health, weight loss and longevity. However, this hasn't seemed to be effective in motivating people to exercise. The researchers looked at shifting the message from what is most important to the clinician to what is most compelling to the patient. They found that individuals were more likely to exercise when the health care providers emphasized the immediate benefits of exercise, such as feeling good, reducing stress and increasing energy.

What struck me most about these studies is that terms we often use in our practice may be off-putting to those we're trying to help. I'm sure that this will create ample controversy. Some people may think that sugar coating our words may not portray the importance of the need to lose unwanted pounds and to exercise regularly. On the other hand, using more tactful terms to discuss weight — or to encourage exercise — may be the best way to achieve those goals.


- Jennifer

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Oct. 04, 2011