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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Daily Dose

Fat label: self-fulfilling prophecy for girls?

In an era where schools send notes home to parents if children are overweight, a new study suggesting that labeling girls “fat” can lead to later obesity should be setting off alarm bells. The research published this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics followed nearly 2,400 10-year-old girls for nearly a decade and found that those who reported that a parent, friend, or teacher told them they were overweight were 66 percent more likely to be obese by the time they were 19.

Of course, the girls called fat were more likely to be overweight in the first place, but the researchers took this into account when calculating how much the f-label increased their likelihood of obesity later on. And plenty of girls who had a healthy body mass index were also told they were overweight.

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The study couldn’t prove that weight stigma actually led to obesity, but the researchers speculated that girls who are labeled fat get upset and stressed about their weight and paradoxically compensate by overeating. “Advocating for weight stigma as public health policy seems unproductive,” wrote the University of California study authors.

Indeed, but ignoring children heading toward the path to obesity isn’t the answer either.

What’s beyond frustrating for parents is that researchers haven’t found what really works to reverse excess weight gain in children. Weight-shaming certainly can back-fire triggering eating disorders and a lifetime of misery. And kids can see right through the lectures about how important it is to exercise and eat fruits and vegetables to stay healthy — especially if mom is nibbling on a brownie while delivering it.

The best advice I’ve heard from obesity researchers centers on preventing excess weight gain in the first place: Parents need to make efforts to keep their own weight in check and model for their kids the behaviors they want them to adopt.

My 18-year-old daughter decided to start running a few years ago and stuck it out even though she absolutely hated it at first. While I never pressed her to lace up her sneakers, she told me she figured there must be something enjoyable about it after watching me come back from my runs with a smile on my face. (She now appreciates her addiction to its mood-boosting effects.)

I realized last week, however, that I could do a better job modeling nutritious eating behaviors for my teenage son when I saw a friend of mine serving five different kinds of salads for lunch; they were made by her 12-year-old daughter and savored by her five kids, ages 4 to 14. While I have to cajole my 14-year-old son to eat his carrot sticks and red pepper slices, these kids savored their salads along with their parents and guests.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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