Should doctors avoid calling children 'fat'?

Researchers argue that being too blunt with parents about their kids' weight problems can backfire

If doctors eradicate the word "fat" from their vocabulary when it comes to kids weight concerns, researchers say they will get more cooperation from parents.
(Image credit: CORBIS)

The war on childhood obesity just got a little more complicated. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics concludes that parents react negatively and defensively when doctors tell them that their children are "fat" or "obese," and would feel more motivated to help their kids slim down if the doctor instead used phrases like "an unhealthy weight." Should doctors choose their words more carefully, or should parents just toughen up and address the problem?

Doctors can be more effective if they watch what they say: "Physicians may want to brush up on their examining room manners," says Amanda St. Amand at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's understandable that they want to jolt parents into action — 2 million American children are classified as extremely obese. But if they use harsh words that parents don't want to hear — and consequently ignore — they're not doing anybody any good.

"If your doctor called your kid 'fat,' what would you do?"

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But doctors are susceptible to bias: Doctors should be extra-sensitive in these situations, says Melissa Hardy in the Los Angeles Times, to counter their own well-documented prejudice towards obese patients. "A 2003 study found that more than 50% found [obese patients] to be awkward, unattractive, ugly and noncompliant, and 1 in 3 considered them weak-willed, sloppy and lazy." A "dose of compassion — and diplomacy" is well-advised.

"Parents to pediatricians: Don't tell me my kid's 'fat'"

Besides, the word "fat" is never appropriate: This study appears to be a reaction to a British government doctor's recent recommendation that doctors stigmatize patients if that's what it takes to get them to lose weight, says Betsy Shaw at Baby Center. But it's possible to take "tough love" too far. The parents who bristle when doctors call their kids fat aren't being over-sensitive. The word has such unmistakable connotations of "laziness, un-attractiveness, weakness even," that it's taboo. Doctors should respect that.

"Calling kids fat won't help them change"

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