What words should we use to talk about weight? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies examining preferences for weight-related terminology

Obes Rev. 2020 Jun;21(6):e13008. doi: 10.1111/obr.13008. Epub 2020 Feb 12.


Evidence of weight stigma and its harmful consequences have led to increased attention to the words that are used to talk about obesity and body weight, including calls for efforts to carefully consider weight-related terminology and promote respectful language in the obesity and medical fields. Despite increased research studies examining people's preferences for specific words that describe body weight, there has been no systematic review to synthesize existing evidence on perceptions of and preferences for weight-related terminology. To address this gap, the current systematic review identified 33 studies (23 quantitative, 10 qualitative) that examined people's preferences for weight-related terminology in the current research literature (from 1999 to 2019). Across studies, findings generally suggest that neutral terminology (eg, "weight" or "unhealthy weight") is preferred and that words like "obese" and "fat" are least acceptable, particularly in provider-patient conversations about weight. However, individual variation in language preferences is evident across demographic characteristics like race/ethnicity, gender, and weight status. Of priority is future research that can improve upon the limited diversity of the existing literature, both with respect to sample diversity and the use of culturally relevant weight-related terminology, which is currently lacking in measurement. Implications for patient-provider communication and public health communication are discussed.

Keywords: language; obesity; terminology; weight stigma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Weight
  • Health Communication / methods*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / diagnosis
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Stigma*
  • Terminology as Topic*