Salty Language: Are The Words You Use Making Your Kids Overweight?

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A major obstacle in treating pediatric obesity is the stigma that surrounds being at an unhealthy weight, a stigma that leads to fat shaming children. Fat shaming children is not an effective way to motivate weight loss — in fact, it actually makes it harder for individuals to lose weight.

One way to alleviate the burden of stigma is to simply shift the language we use surrounding overweight and obesity. Currently, words like “fat,” “obese,” and “extremely obese” are commonly used to discuss someone’s body weight. The problem with these words is that they can be associated with blame and negativity, rather than be used to appropriately or effectively discuss body weight. It’s true that “obese” is a clinical term that is used to describe a BMI of 30 or more, but using the word in conversations with children can be counterproductive.

How to Talk to Kids About Weight

A report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents, educators, and physicians use words that don’t presently carry the burden of stigma. Neutral terms like “unhealthy weight,” “very unhealthy weight,” or simply referring to an overweight or obese child’s weight as “weight” can address the stigma from a simple, easily-implemented semantic approach. Physicians should also use these words when discussing a child’s weight with parents and family members, since it promotes a supportive, unbiased clinical experience that is an important part in addressing childhood obesity.

Words like overweight and obese and can be used negatively in situations with teasing, bullying, or when fat shaming children. Additionally, referring to weight as unhealthy can be a better descriptor for a child than body mass index and its associated classifications, since framing weight in the context of health offers perhaps a more objective, less abstract understanding of it.

Using stigma-free, clear language can make it easier to discuss weight with younger children, which is a critical step that parents and physicians must take to curb childhood obesity. One study found that behavioral intervention in severely obese children amounted to significant reductions in BMI for nearly 60 percent of young children, but almost no effect on adolescents, suggesting the importance of early intervention.

The Negative Effects of Fat Shaming

Obesity is not an issue of poor self-control or carelessness, so making an individual feel as if they aren’t trying hard enough amounts to fat shaming. Fat shaming fails to consider the real childhood obesity causes like poverty and lack of education. Risk factors for childhood obesity also include family history to mental health. More importantly, fat shaming leads to an increased risk of binge eating disorders, social isolation, more weight gain, and avoidance of physical activity and school, making it even harder for children and adolescents to lose weight.

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