Time to re-brand Obesity: how terminology defeats weight loss

The term Obesity has led such a maligned and tortured existence that it has gone beyond becoming meaningless; it has become antagonistic to the pursuit of losing and keeping off weight.  I’ll forgo the well-accepted stipulation about body-image obsession in our culture; this is certainly a big part of the problem.  So, too, the train wreck of how and what the majority of Americans eat.  However, what gets under-examined is how the nomenclature of weight loss—how it is defined and branded—is a significant part of the equation of failure.

Government and healthcare officials, mindful of the costs and consequences (financial and human) of excessive weight are caught up in a quandary: how do they raise the urgent need for health-related weight management without sounding alarmist and scaring people away from the issue?  The conventional wisdom pushed a medical agenda: Obesity is an epidemic.  Let’s examine this unfortunate bit of branding.  Epidemic evokes qualities of a rampant disease, or an outbreak of a pox upon the populace.  The implications are 1) that is should be medically treated, 2) that it should be eradicated from the planet, and 3) that if you are someone who is currently classified as obese, you are dangerously sick.  This kind of hysteria—while scarily motivating—may turn off many overweight people from taking any kind of meaningful action.  Nor does it give the medical community any guidance on how to counsel or address their patients’ condition.  In fact, it exposes a major gap in the attempt to find a solution: doctors don’t treat weight.  And simply branding Obesity an epidemic doesn’t change this truth.

Over the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the leading weight loss brands and programs, as well as some that never made it to market.  Needless to say, despite the collective effort of hundreds of brands and dozens of manufacturers, nothing has been effective on a grand scale.  America is getting fatter by the day.  In addition to the programs and products that offer people opportunities to lose weight, I want to suggest a fairly radical shift in thinking: let’s re-brand the problem; let’s rebrand Obesity.  The term evokes a stigmatized condition of poor self-image, gluttony and illness.  It is not a label that does anyone any good.  Obese people don’t even identify with it.  Other than the people who weigh, say 400-500 pounds, research shows that most overweight people have to be a lot fatter to consider themselves obese.  The current guidelines for defining Obesity are based on a formula developed in the mid-19th century based on the relative relationship between one’s height and weight.  BMI—or Body Mass Index, as it is called—does not take into account important factors like muscle mass or percent of body fat.  As such, many professional football players—especially those fire-plug running backs—would fall into BMI categories of being overweight or even obese. Further, while there is a general equation between being obese and being ill, it does not hold true enough for credibility’s sake.  There are many fat people without diabetes or high cholesterol (looking at you Chris Christie).  With such people, it begs the question: what’s the problem with being fat; if it doesn’t bother me, why should anyone else care?

And caring is the key to how Obesity can be re-branded into a concept that is more enlightened, more motivating and, most importantly, more useful in helping those who want to lose weight find the right path.  How to go about such an initiative?  Here’s an example.  First, let’s get rid of the tainted language—obese, fat, epidemic—and focus on the matter at hand: weight.  What is the right weight to be?  That is a personal judgment, whether it’s based on appearance, health or another goal.  Next, let’s take these personal goals and identify them with a term that expresses a desire to change: Concern.  A concern is a worry on a continuum from mild anxiety to full-blown fear on which individuals who desire to lose weight can place themselves.  Lastly, let’s address the hysteria surrounding weight loss.  It can compel people to starve themselves for brief periods just so they can look better at a high school reunion or their wedding.  It can drive people to invest all their hopes and dreams into fad diets and quick-fix remedies that create a never-ending pattern of personal failure.  Let’s call for a more sober attitude, a more reasonable attitude, a healthier attitude.  Link the nomenclature and you get a better alternative to I’m fat, I’m over-weight, I’m obese: I have a Weight Concern.  It can be augmented to include those whose weight actually affects key metabolic indicators: Metabolic Weight Concern.  Or even Healthy Weight Concern.  In this case, Healthy has a double meaning that accommodates people who wish to lose weight for health reasons, or are expressing a judicious approach to their weight loss, or both.  Further, it breaches an all-important gap between the medical community and the individual: it transforms the discussion from weight—which doctors don’t treat—to metabolism and health, which they do.  It allows health goals to be mutually set by doctor and individual, whether it’s about blood glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure and so on.

Make no mistake: I am not suggesting that merely re-branding Obesity will ameliorate the complex issues surrounding body image and weight loss.  What I am saying is that no solution will be optimally effective until we re-think nomenclature about a state that is stigmatized beyond hope, and unrecognized by the very people who wish to self-identify.  No one weight-loss or diet brand will ever make a difference for the majority of people seeking to lose weight and keep it off.  However, if weight loss brands could collectively endorse a re-branding of weight terminology, especially Obesity, and embrace a more motivating concept around Metabolic/Health Weight Concern (or something similar in its intent), they will go a long way to creating a perceptual remedy that is badly in need in the weight loss field, and probably attract more customers who certainly prefer honey to vinegar.

2 Responses to “Time to re-brand Obesity: how terminology defeats weight loss”

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  1. A concern is a worry on a continuum from mild anxiety to full-blown fear on which individuals who desire to lose weight can place themselves.

    • Vince Parry says:

      Exactly. One current problem with the definition of obesity as defined by the ineffective BMI scale is that it is a black and white concept. That is, one is either obese or not. By creating a continuum, people can–as you say–find their comfort zone in self-identifying.

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