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Study: When discussing childhood obesity, words carry weight

“Obese” and “overweight” are common terms used by doctors to describe excess weight in children, but according to recent findings published in Pediatric Obesity, physicians may want to choose their words more wisely. Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada report that parents often consider these terms off-putting and judgmental and may be less likely to follow doctor’s recommendations when the words were used.

“Health professionals probably shouldn’t use terms like fat, chubby, overweight or obese,” said researcher Geoff Ball, PhD, in a release. He also noted that parents were less likely to feel blamed for their children’s weight issues if neutral and less stigmatizing terms like “large” or “gaining too much weight” were used.

It tears your heart out when a child starts talking about being picked on because of his or her weight.

As director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Thomas Robinson, MD, sees families struggling with a child's weight on a daily basis. I wanted to find out what he thought about the study and about confronting sensitive topics with parents and children. He told me:

I believe the specific terms we use - overweight, obesity, heavy for their age, etc. - are less important than the context in which we use them, and how well we are able to build a supportive relationship and alliance with a child and his or her parents. In my opinion, it is most important to understand what a child's weight means to him or her, and their family, and to take that into account when speaking with them about a child's weight.

He also emphasized the importance of physicians to address the problem – regardless of language:

It tears your heart out when a child starts talking about being picked on because of his or her weight, having trouble fitting into a school uniform, or not wanting to take their shirt off even in front of their own parents… I think it is our role to speak plainly with children and families about these issues, give them permission to let us know what they are experiencing, and not to pretend they don't exist or play them down. Instead, frank discussions can help uncover a child's or parent's motivation and help empower them to start making changes.

Previously: Children and obesity - what can parents do to help?Obesity in kids: A growing epidemicStanford pediatrician discusses developing effective program to curtail childhood obesity and Major effort launched to prevent, treat childhood obesity

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