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Calling young girls ‘too fat’ may raise their risk for obesity as teens

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Young girls who have been called “too fat” by family members and peers are more likely to be obese by the time they reach their late teens. According to a study published in the April 28 online JAMA Pediatrics, labelling children as fat in an attempt to shame them into losing weight may only exacerbate the problem.

In the new study, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) psychologists set out to determine if simply being labelled as too fat had any effect on later weight issues. Senior study author A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, and her colleagues used data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study for their research.

Tomiyama and her team followed 1,213 10-year-old African American girls and 1,166 10-year-old Caucasian girls in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. At the start of the study, the girls’ height and weight were measured. They were also asked if they had been called too fat by their mother, father, sister, brother, best friend, a boy they liked, any other girl or boy, or their teacher.

If a girl identified any of these individuals as taunting her about her weight, she was considered “weight labelled.” Follow-up when these girls were 19 years old showed that they were more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) in the obese range than girls who said they had not been called too fat.

The researchers also found that girls who were called too fat by a family member were 1.62 times more likely to be obese by the time they were 19. Girls who were taunted as too fat by a non-family member were 1.4 times more likely to fall into the obese range.

“Simply being labeled as too fat had a measureable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this,” said Tomiyama in a UCLA news release.

“Making people feel bad about their weight can backfire,” Tomiyama told the L.A. Times. “It can be demoralizing. And we know that when people feel bad, they often reach out for food for comfort.”

For parents concerned about their child’s weight, Tomiyama advises against using the word “fat.”

“We don’t really need to talk about fat or not fat if we are trying to talk about health,” she said. “Just say let’s go eat healthier and let’s go exercise and not even make weight a part of the conversation.”

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