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In the fight against obesity, can a kind word tip the scale? Two recent studies show that how we talk about weight can have an impact on those trying to shed pounds.

Researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, led by Rebecca Puhl, PhD, found that the most effective public-health campaigns are empowering and solutions-oriented, not focused on body weight and obesity.

The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, shows that shaming people into losing weight simply isn’t working. “There seems to be this perception that harshness is needed as a ‘wake-up call,’ but this is not what our research shows,” says Puhl. “In contrast, when people are made to feel stigmatized, blamed or shamed about their weight, they are more likely to react by engaging in unhealthy behaviors (for example, binge eating and avoidance of physical activity), which can ultimately impair weight-loss efforts.” Campaigns that talk about specific healthy changes — such as increasing vegetable consumption or decreasing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages — were especially motivating.

Doctors need to choose their words thoughtfully when talking about weight, too. A second study from the Rudd Center found that the terms physicians use to describe a patient — such as “fat” or “obese” — can hinder weight-loss ambitions. Patients felt more motivated and responded most positively to doctor-patient conversations that employed neutral language like “weight,” “unhealthy weight” or “BMI.”

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