Calling a girl "too fat" may increase her chances of being obese in the future, new research suggests.
In a letter published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers at UCLA report that 10-year-old girls who are told they are too fat by people that are close to them are more likely to be obese at 19 than girls who were never told they were too fat.
And that's regardless of what they weighed at the beginning of the study.
"Making people feel bad about their weight can backfire," said Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and the study's senior author. "It can be demoralizing. And we know that when people feel bad, they often reach out to food for comfort."
Tomiyama studies issues surrounding weight, dieting stress and health at the DISH Lab at UCLA.
The study was conducted as a response to those who believe shaming people into losing weight is an effective way to deal with the the obesity epidemic, Tomiyama said. (For example, see the Strong 4 Life campaign sponsored by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta).
To see whether simply being labeled "too fat" has an effect on a girl's chances of gaining weight, Tomiyama and her colleagues used data from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study that followed more than 2,300 girls from the time they were 10 until they were 19.
When the participants were 10 years old, they were asked if they had been called too fat by any one of a list people that included father, mother, brother, sister, best girlfriend, boy you like best, any other girl, any other boy, or a teacher.
If a girl answered yes to any of the above, she was considered "weight labeled."
The researchers found that girls who were labeled "too fat" by a family member were 1.62 times more likely to be obese at 19. Girls who were labeled too fat by a non-family member were 1.4 times more likely to be obese.
And let's reiterate that the effect of the girl's BMI at the start of the study was removed.
Tomiyama said she understands that people who tell loved ones they are too fat often do so with good intentions. "I know it's hard -- if you call your child 'too fat' she may gain weight, but if you don't do anything, are you enabling an unhealthy lifestyle?" she said.
Her advice: Stay away from 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 part of the conversation."
She adds that weight is not necessarily a great marker for health anyway.
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