Should we stop calling people 'overweight'?

overweight woman

An MPs' report on body image has advocated the use of "weight-neutral language". So should we stop calling people "overweight"?

There are many people who would agree that using the term "fat" to somebody's face is neither helpful or pleasant.

But there's a growing movement to get doctors and other public health professionals to stop using words such as "overweight" and "obese" as well.

MPs think the terms have a negative impact on body image and self-esteem, and want doctors to promote broader health and lifestyle messages instead.

The idea has been gaining momentum for a while. A study by the University of Pennsylvania in January found the word "obesity" offensive, while Liverpool City Council considered banning the word in its literature aimed at children in 2010.

And in March, draft guidance issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said those who were obese should merely be encouraged to get down to a "healthier weight".

But not everyone agrees. In 2010, the Public Health Minister for England, Anne Milton, said GPs should tell people they were fat rather than obese as it was more likely to motivate them into losing weight.

Two women standing back to back Somebody with a BMI of 30 or more is classed as obese

So does weight terminology need a rethink?

Dr Sarah Jarvis, a presenter on the BBC's One Show, says when it comes to a medical context, the words "overweight" and "obese" are necessary, largely because they are the framework for the body mass index (BMI).

"I don't want to make people feel bad, and appreciate some people may have problems with self-esteem, but when it comes to it, as a doctor, if you are too careful, you run the risk of people not understanding the health implications.

"The fact is BMI is the best indicator of likelihood of surviving to a later date - and if you get into the obese range, the chances are you are going to die from a condition related to obesity like heart disease. If you are overweight rather than obese, you are more likely to die early and have medical conditions," she says.

Jarvis says there are occasions when she chooses her language carefully, for example by never encouraging people to go on a diet - "as 90% of people that lose weight on a diet will put it, and more, back on within a year" - but to adopt a lifestyle instead.

Use of obesity-related language

Ian Brookes, consultant editor at Collins English Dictionary

"Statistically, there are no signs people are using words like fat, obese and overweight less frequently. There is a relative increase in their use, but that could be because there is a more general awareness of obesity and the dangers of it.

"There is no evidence of any change in the use of offensive synonyms like chubby, lardy and podgy.

"There is an increase in vocabulary relating to the whole commercial and medical side of obesity, with new words such as bariatric, gastric band and stomach stapling.

"But a number of facetious terms have also come up more. We've recently added the phrase generation XL - which leads on from generation X.

"There is not much evidence weight-neutral terms are being used, but then it is relatively new. Fattist first comes up in 1974, peaks around 1992 and then goes into decline."

But she says although she would never use the word fat in her surgery, as it has "childhood playground associations", she thinks talk of banning overweight is "political correctness gone mad".

"I do see how it is a delicate balancing act - on the one hand I don't want to be pejorative, or be mean, but at the same time the pendulum must not swing too far the other way.

"The facts are when I started training in 1993, 10% of the UK was obese and now 25% are. We are absolutely not moving the goalposts - we are getting fatter," she says.

Nigel Mercer, the president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, agrees that when it comes to someone who is seriously overweight, and it is a medical issue, "there is no pussyfooting around the issue".

But he says the key is "appropriate use of terminology for appropriate use".

"It depends on who comments are being levelled at - to a class of children, where there will be a distribution of body sizes, it is important to know being overweight can lead to diabetes, but it is more of a psychological issue than a health issue - and children can be extremely cruel," he says.

Mercer says for adults, part of the problem is people no longer filter what they say, and society should really keep more of its opinions to itself.

"I am a big bloke, and I would have no problem if a professional told me I was obese, but it would be entirely different if someone told me that in the street," he says.

Elsewhere on the web

The BBC News Magazine previously explored size-based discrimination, hearing from 22 stone (139kg) businesswoman Marsha Coupe, who believed "fattism" fuelled an attack on her.

In the article, Susie Orbach, psychologist and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, maintains that this kind of prejudice stems from the idea that overweight people have lost their self-control - which frightens society because there is so much emphasis on being slim.

Orbach has also written on the subject of "fattism" more recently for the Guardian, pointing towards a new study highlighting levels of discrimination towards fat people at work, and the trend for "fat shaming".

An article in Psychologies magazine asks whether an increasingly homogenised ideal of beauty and the "female power to transform" are damaging people's relationships with their true selves.

But Tara Parker-Pope, in a blog for the New York Times, nods to research that suggests people aren't always so alert to their body size, entering into a collective state of "fat denial", often underestimating their size.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1178.

    We shouldn't be sugarcoating things, metaphorically or literally.

    Part of getting over a problem like obesity (or just being overweight) is to admit you have a problem; if nobody acknowledges the fact that a person has a problem, they are much less likely to accept it themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1177.

    this article also demonstrates that our MPs clearly do not have enough to do, or have more time on their hands than they should

    what about the important issues, like employement, the economy, the banks - they should be put to work on those issues first before we waste what is even more public money (paying their wages) on this rubbish

  • Comment number 1176.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1175.

    What harsh comments! I'm not excusing it, but a lot of unhealthy foods are actually addictive, people just don't often think of food as an addiction, as we need it every day to live.

    However, my mum is obese due to a medical condition, and can diet like a champion, but still only lose a stone. Do you still want to say 'if you don't like it, diet'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1174.

    for gods sake we are running down the PC road again - overweight is overweight - period - changing he b***** word does not change the issue

  • rate this

    Comment number 1173.

    abbeyx0x .... Obesity is not a mental illnesses, just due to the fact some one is excess over weigh does not mean they have a mental illness it could just mean they enjoy food, or they may have a medical problem that makes them this way. A lot of mental health patients are larger however this is don't a Obesity is not a diagnosis i have ever read in a patients notes

  • rate this

    Comment number 1172.

    Sure are many in here who can quote Physics at GCSE level and think they're research biologists + psychologists. The less you understand, the more you think you know.

    @1164. Leodisthefirst: "Choice" is offered by conmen and accepted by idiots. And of the limited behaviour range humans exhibit, society tolerates only a small proportion.

    So the intelligent solve problems. The weak assign blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1171.

    Reading these comments is chilling, have we really got to the attitude of, its your fault deal with it? How narrow minded are some people, people who are addicted to food need help. Insults fail at the problem, as we look at the past, carrot is always better than the stick.

    Insulting people wont make them decide to lose weight, it will just lower their self esteem causing them to eat more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1170.

    Is a spade a spade? If you're fat, you're fat, it's a factual description, if you don't like it, diet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1169.


    How so? I understand the 1st law to be "...the change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to the system, minus the amount of work performed by the system on its surroundings." Now since a closed system can only exchange energy but not matter with it's surroundings, which the body can, how does your riposte or the law apply?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1168.

    The problem is, there's a high percentage of MP's who could be classed as "overweight". Ar we really dealing with societal issues or MP's own sensitivities? But here's the bad news for both of the above - pressure to be slim is NOT societal, it's biological. We're hard wired to find fat people offensive. Our brains are geared for symmetry and certain proportions - forget whining and get exercising

  • rate this

    Comment number 1167.

    I am overweight! I don't mind being called that! It maybe that I don't do enough exercise, but I don't stuff my face with food all day like some people on here think. I have two dogs who I walk for two hours each day, more than some people do in a week. I think some people forget all people are different, some don't exercise at all yet still keep slim. Everyone is different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1166.

    Golgotha, can't resist a last word. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. I am not working on the premise you describe, but the complexities you describe affect BMR as I previously explained. 400 chars is not enough to give a physics and physiology tutorial. In a final comment, you are wrong. I suspect that years ago I wouldn't have been able to persuade you that the world is round.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1165.

    So what do we call them short for their weight? I almost can't believe this thought it had to be an April fool's day joke. Really what ever happened to being honest? If you are fat, overweight or obese then you need to be told, perhaps you need help to stop being those things but being lied to is not helpful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1164.

    @1148 Ciaran
    Compassion my rear end.

    If someone wants to bloat up: go for it. If someone wants to drink themselves into oblivion: cheers! If someone wants to smoke herbal remedies: puff away.

    But don't come bleating that it was society's fault when things go wrong.

    Yuo had a choice, you chose wrong. Tough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1163.

    The English language is rich and potent, and attempts to ban specific words because of 'correctness' are futile. A spade is a spade. What next? Can somebody be arrested for calling another a 'muttering idiot'? After all, the word 'idiot' used to be a medical term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1162.

    1145. Golgotha: Really? That's incredible! You've coined a new physics. For the good of all humankind, it is your duty to start work on cold fusion immediately!

    If you want to have it proved to you ask Nasa. The energy inputs and outputs of astronauts are incredibly precisely controlled and measured. This is not something that someone just took a punt at, it's been proven.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1161.

    I've thought about this topic in the past and studied the BMI at close hand. As many contributors have already noted the main issue is one of terminology. As I once said to a colleague who was "obese" according to the BMI .. "You are not 6kg overweight .. you are 6 inches underheight"

  • rate this

    Comment number 1160.

    Its bad how overweight is now considered a normal size. I gained weight about 2years ago (comfort eating) and became overweight, went up 2 sizes and blatantly had excess fat. I lost the weight eventually but it was amazing how many people (including my GP) said oh youre not fat, presumably as I wasn't obese or as fat as other people. I was still fat and 20years ago would have been told so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1159.

    Much as I would like to comment (Food intake high...Body Mass High...etc) I dare not in case this issue becomes yet another where it will become a criminal offence to speak ones doubt the 'oversensitive lobby' will be scanning these comments with a finger ready to report dial the police.!!....oh....and I live in the town (yes WHOLE town) branded the fattest town in Britain...and it IS !


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