Obesity UK Launches Guidelines for Doctors on Speaking About Obesity

The UK’s largest charity representing people living with obesity is today launching guidelines to change the way doctors speak about obesity.

Obesity UK, which provides support to over 20,000 people with obesity in the UK, is publishing Language Matters: Obesity, the first ever guide to help doctors use more appropriate and helpful language when interacting with people living with obesity. This is following the huge success of the NHS England Language Matters: Diabetes, led by Professor Partha Kar. Professor Partha Kar brought together a group of experts to recreate this for obesity.

The launch follows the Prime Minister’s recently announced Obesity Strategy[i], which set out new measures to reduce obesity and improve people’s health. Language Matters: Obesity aims to support the Prime Minister’s ambition by tackling weight stigma and encouraging more supportive conversations about obesity between doctors and their patients.

The guide’s authors welcomed the Government’s new strategy, which represents a shift in focus from childhood obesity to empowering all ages affected to reduce their weight. They contend that with healthcare professionals being asked to play a larger role in obesity prevention and treatment, they should be aware of how to talk about weight effectively, and supportively.

People with obesity face stigma in many areas of their lives, including in healthcare, which can lead to adverse consequences such as avoiding healthcare settings, physical activity and exercise[ii] and may lead to disordered eating and poorer mental health[iii]. A survey conducted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity in 2018 found that 88% of people living with obesity had been stigmatised, criticised or abused because of their obesity[iv].

According to the latest figures, 29% of adults in England are living with obesity[v]. Obesity is a risk factor for a range of secondary conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. The guide will be made available to all healthcare professionals in England to help them support patients to lose weight and reduce their risk of ill-health.

Language Matters: Obesity has been developed by a working group consisting of academics, clinicians and patient representatives. It sets out evidence based principles to underpin positive interactions between healthcare professionals and people living with obesity, and recommends:

  • Following principles which avoid blame and judgment, and using person first language.
  • Holding positive conversations with people living with obesity, for example by asking people with obesity if they want to speak about their weight and acknowledging positive actions that people may have taken already to reduce their weight.
  • Signposting patients with obesity to further information and support, self-management and NHS and community services, provided the patient wants this.

Language Matters: Obesity follows ‘Language Matters: Language and diabetes’, published in 2018, which provided practical examples to encourage positive interactions and outcomes between health and care professionals and patients with diabetes.

Dr David Strain, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who co-led the Language Matters in Obesity project, said “Regardless of an individual’s perception of obesity, there is general agreement that living with obesity is associated with a stigma. Words can burn, and contribute to the problems, meaning people may be far less willing to seek support. As healthcare professionals, we have the opportunity to address this stigma, in leading by example with our words and actions, to promote the best health outcomes.”

Dr Strain continued:  “This strategy can potentially have a major impact on the health of the nation. Our research group has demonstrated that even a modest 5% weight loss can halt the progression of disease in the smallest of blood vessels over a three-year period. If accomplished this could reduce cases of kidney failure, heart failure and many other conditions in the UK. We must do all we can to encourage people to sign up and engage with this campaign, and the words we choose are an important factor in achieving that goal.

Sarah Le Brocq, Director, Obesity UK, said “While we welcome the new obesity strategy, the rhetoric around unhealthy food adverts, “buy one get one free promotions”, and nutritional labelling, undermines the struggle that people living with obesity face on a daily basis. There is overwhelming evidence that a genetic predisposition and hormonal changes increase risk of obesity as a disease.”

She continued:  “Obesity UK are proud to be leading the way with the Language Matters: Obesity guidelines and hope this will be a huge step in the right direction when it comes to addressing stigma towards people living with obesity.”

Project co-lead Dr Charlotte Albury, of the University of Oxford,, said: “The launch of the government’s obesity strategy is an excellent opportunity to emphasise that as we implement these new strategies we should not be blaming people living with obesity, and we should have an awareness of the language we use when talking about this condition, and the people who live with it, can stigmatise, or support.”

She continued:  “We have engaged with people living with obesity, and healthcare professionals to produce the Language Matters: Obesity guidelines. These guidelines aim to start addressing weight stigma in healthcare settings by clearly signposting the route to a good conversation for a person living with obesity which does not seek to shame or blame, but be supportive and helpful. This document should be essential reading for all health care practitioners. No other condition in the health service today is met with such stigma in both words and actions.”

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tackling-obesity-government-strategy/tackling-obesity-empowering-adults-and-children-to-live-healthier-lives

[ii] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/obr.12266

[iii] https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/ajph.2009.159491

[iv] https://obesityappg.com/inquiries

[v] https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn03336/

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