Young girls who are called fat are more likely to become obese women according to a new study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). The study, published in this week’s JAMA Pediatrics journal, found that being called fat did not encourage young girls to lose weight, but was in fact associated with a rise in body mass index (BMI) connected with the labeling.
And it was not just being called fat by the mean kids on the playground. The study showed that if parents, friends, relatives, peers, siblings, or teachers criticize the young girl’s weight the stress can actually encourage overeating. And the girls’ chances of obesity increased with the more people who labeled them as fat, particularly if the labels came from family members..
The research used data from a previous study that followed 2,000 10-year-old girls through the age of 19. The young girls were asked if they had ever been called fat, with 1,188 replying yes. Height and weight were measured at ages 10 and 19. Those girls who had been called fat as by the time they were 10 were found to be 60 percent more likely to become obese by the time they were 19.
UCLA researcher Dr. Janet Tomiyama said the researchers were astonished when they found that such a measurable effect nearly a decade later could originate in simply being labeled as fat. Even after they statistically took out the effects of income, race, weight, and puberty age, the effect remained. Although the authors say the study results are not conclusive, Tomiyama says it brings them “one step closer” to being able to say that a girl will become an obese woman if she has been called too fat as a child.
Study co-author Jeffrey Hunger says that people who are called fat may worry about personally experiencing the discrimination and stigma that often accompanies being overweight, leading to overeating due to stress. Additionally, a separate study last year found that obese children actually produce the stress hormone cortisol at higher levels than children of normal weight, yet another reason to avoiding labeling young people as fat and increasing the stress reaction.
Tomiyama says the conversation’s focus needs to change from an emphasis on weight to emphasizing general health, since many studies have shown that weight is not really a good indicator of health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diets that promote weight loss may be unhealthy due to limiting nutritional intake. They say achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is more about lifestyle choices than dietary changes, balancing the number of calories taken in with the number of calories the body uses.
Researchers say it is better for adults to set good examples of exercise and eating, and encourage kids to make healthier choices than does nagging children about their weight because the adults think they are fat. If grown-ups set good examples of healthy eating and exercise, the little girls they consider fat may have a better chance of avoiding becoming obese adults.
By Beth A. Balen