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Don’t Call My Kid Fat or Obese!

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Even though one in three American children are clinically obese, parents don’t like the words obese or fat used to describe their children.

According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, parents would prefer something softer such as “unhealthy weight” be used instead.

“Many people find the term ‘fat’ to be pejorative and judgmental,” says Rebecca Puhl, the study’s lead author and Rudd’s director of research. “A lot of the time, providers have positive intentions, but the language they use can be seen as blaming, accusatory and not helpful.”

With over 2 million U.S. children not only obese, but extremely obese, it’s important that parents accept that their child has a serious weight problem and become active in helping them bring it under control.

Researchers asked 445 parents to tell them how they felt about common terms used to describe a child who is very overweight. Parents didn’t like words like chubby, fat, obese or extremely obese. They preferred words that they felt were non-judgmental such as “unhealthy weight.”

When doctors’ approach the subject, parents prefer “Let’s talk about your child’s weight” rather than “We need to talk about your child’s obesity.”  The surveyed parents – 44% who had at least one overweight child- also approved of terms like “high BMI (body mass index) and “unhealthy weight.” Parents said they felt terms like fat and obese were offensive and stigmatizing. They also indicated that their children were less likely to want to try and lose weight when they were called obese.

Recently a British public-health minister recommended that health providers call obese patients “fat” to help goad them into losing weight. The Pediatrics research, says Puhl, shows that such an approach doesn’t work. “Parents were saying, No, ‘fat’ isn’t motivating at all,” she says.

About 36 per cent of parents said they would put their child on a strict diet in response to weight stigma from a doctor, a finding the researchers called a cause for concern since research suggests that severely restricting calories and strict dieting can backfire for achieving long-term, significant weight loss. Half responded they would ask the physician to use more sensitive language, while 35% said they’d seek out a new physician. Thirty-seven percent said they would feel upset or embarrassed.

Based on the findings, Puhl suggested that health care providers not make assumptions about what weight-based terms to use with parents, but to actually ask them about their preferences.

After the study received media coverage, parents immediately weighed in on Facebook and Twitter. As you might expect, many agreed with the study’s parents, but many others felt parents were being too sensitive. Most agreed that children should be taught that weight is a health issue and not an image issue.

The study’s authors noted drawbacks of the study, such as the use of hypothetical rather than real life scenarios, use of self-reported data on weight and height, and lack of an ethnically diverse sample of participants.

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