In an era when schools send notes home to parents if children are overweight, a new study suggesting that labeling girls “fat” can lead to later obesity should raise alarm. The research published last 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 who were called fat were more likely to be overweight in the first place, but the researchers took this into account when calculating how much the 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.
The study couldn’t prove that weight stigma actually led to obesity, but the researchers speculated that girls who are labeled fat become upset and stressed about their weight and paradoxically compensate by overeating. Despite that possibility, ignoring when children are heading toward obesity isn’t the answer either.
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 the behaviors they want for their children.