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The Small Change, Big Impact: Reframing Language in Healthcare

Authored by Ankitha Kasavaraju

Art by Ashley Chopra


“I am eating healthy because I am on a diet.”

“I am eating healthy because I am a healthy eater.”


The change is small, but the effects can be dramatic. It is no question that the language, words, and phrasing of what we say plays a significant role in the changes we mean to bring. Learning how to reframe public health messaging effectively has been in the spotlight since the COVID-19 pandemic, where confusing and weak messaging contributed to the spread of the disease. Since then, more research has studied how language affects a population’s and lifestyle habits—and how shifting messaging away from more traditional scientific facts—could prove to be effective. 


Reframing messages in the public health sphere from scientific jargon to messages that appeal to values has been proven effective [1]. The National Institute of Health (NIH) published a study on message framing for mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic; results of this research showed that loyalty-framed messages improved the frequency of mask wearing among participants compared to messages on scientific information. Differences among conservative and liberal participants were observed as well in similar studies, showing that mask-wearing behaviors improved in liberal participants when directed to messages on care and fairness in mask-wearing [2]. These studies not only demonstrate how reframing messages from purely scientific facts to value-based messaging can be used to improve public health outcomes, but they also demonstrate how adjusting messages can help public health organizations target specific populations. 


Reframing can give ideas about individual health as well, especially when it comes to obesity and weight loss. A comprehensive study done on reframing weightloss across nationalities, gender, and race have all shown common themes from participants' journey in their weight loss, including changing their terminology in the subject and how they defined their relationship with food [3]. For example, participants noted that moving away from using the word “diet” to describe changes in their eating habits to “way of life” or “lifestyle” had changed the way they saw their new eating habits. By moving away from the word “diet,” participants could avoid seeing their changes as temporary and restrictive. These alterations demonstrate how reframing can be effective in creating sustainable change in participants and creating shifts to their mindset on weight loss. Additionally, it was commonly found that participants would reframe their relationship with food, changing their definition of food from a comfort item to “fuel.” While different participants modified their definitions of food in different ways, the studies together demonstrate how changing the meaning of food for participants can alter their behaviors and gear them  to their weight loss goals [4].


Participants in these studies also mentioned that reframing behavior goals and identity influenced their weight loss journey. Instead of focusing on shedding pounds and losing weight, participants shifted their goals to improving health and their lifestyle, appealing to their values of a sustainable lifestyle. Additionally, it was noted that some participants reframed their own identity—describing themselves as a “runner” instead of someone who simply runs. Reframing their identity helped participants build their lifestyle, as being a runner required eating healthy in order to run well [5]. 


In conclusion, the power of language and reframing is evident both in public health messaging and personal wellness. Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic emphasize shifting  from data-driven to value-based messaging, improving outcomes, and targeting diverse populations. On an individual level, reframing one's relationship with food, weight loss, and lifestyle fosters sustainable change. This comprehensive approach to language and mindset has the potential to enhance public well-being and promote lasting health and lifestyle improvements.


References

  1. Kaplan, J. T., Vaccaro, A., Henning, M., & Christov-Moore, L. (2023). Moral reframing of messages about mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific reports, 13(1), 10140. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-37075-3

  2. Andrew Luttrell & Joseph T. Trentadue (2023) Advocating for Mask-Wearing Across the Aisle: Applying Moral Reframing in Health Communication, Health Communication, DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2022.2163535

  3. Hartmann-Boyce, J., Nourse, R., Boylan, A. M., Jebb, S. A., & Aveyard, P. (2018). Experiences of Reframing during Self-Directed Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance: Systematic Review of Qualitative Studies. Applied psychology. Health and well-being, 10(2), 309–329. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12132

  4. Jaksa, C. M. (2010). The experience of maintaining substantial weight loss: A transcendental phenomenological investigation. Michigan School of Professional Psychology.

  5. Reyes, N. R., Oliver, T. L., Klotz, A. A., Lagrotte, C. A., Vander Veur, S. S., Virus, A., Bailer, B. A., & Foster, G. D. (2012). Similarities and differences between weight loss maintainers and regainers: a qualitative analysis. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(4), 499–505. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2011.11.014

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