In our efforts to help society and the medical profession understand that obesity is a medical condition and not simply a lifestyle issue,  a very important principle to remember is how we speak about obesity.  Obesity is a diagnosis, not a description of a person, and the way in which we should speak about obesity is called People First language.

This may seem minor to some, but actually, it is an extremely important point.  Consider the difference:

Jamie is an obese person.
Jamie is a person with obesity. (person first language)

Or even more simply, compare:

Jamie is obese.
Jamie has obesity.

Obesity is a medical condition that is unfortunately terribly stigmatized, and when a person is described by this medical condition (ie as being obese rather than having obesity), it comes with negative connotations and can sound outright shaming.   Let’s consider someone with sleep apnea. Which would you choose?

Lou is a sleep apnea person.
Lou is a person with sleep apnea. (person first language)

Saying that Lou is a sleep apnea person doesn’t even make sense. He has a diagnosis of sleep apnea.

Or consider this – which would you choose?

Mark has cancer.
Mark is cancer.

Well of course, we would all choose ‘Mark has cancer’. We would never want cancer to define Mark  – so why would we want obesity to define Jamie?

So remember: obesity/overweight is a medical condition, not an adjective to describe a person or a population.  Try avoiding the word ‘obese’ in favour of ‘obesity’ and you’ll automatically switch to Person First language in most cases. I would like to see the word ‘obese’ removed from our vocabulary entirely.

We would like to see all medical and general public literature to change to person first language.  We have a long way to go on this – most medical journals, for example, sadly still have not made this switch.

In the 2018 Diabetes Canada Clinical Practice Guidelines, we speak about obesity in patient first language, and we hope that this leads the way in Canada and globally towards uniformly adopting Patient First Language!

It’s time to transfer the baton from the old way of thinking to the new – always put People First and Patients First.

Follow me on twitter! @drsuepedersen © 2018