Children suffering from obesity are often victims of societal judgment and assumptions, according to experts presenting today at the American College of Sports Medicine's 14th-annual Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition.

Although negative attitudes toward obese children are often unintentional, they can hinder young people's emotional and physical growth.

"These children can experience a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy," said Heather Chambliss, Ph.D., FACSM, an expert presenting on the topic. "If the child feels unwanted or uncoordinated in sports, he or she can develop a dislike for physical activity. And if eating habits are shamed, an unhealthy relationship with food can easily arise."

To avoid harmful treatment of overweight or obese children, Chambliss and co-presenter Scott Martin, Ph.D., recommend the following strategies:

- Avoid assumptions. "We tend to form immediate opinions about health behaviors when it comes to obesity," Chambliss said. Don't automatically categorize children into the too-little-exercise, too-much-junk-food class. Obesity is a complex condition with causes relating to genetics and physiology as well as behavior.

- Don't make character judgments. Chambliss says obese children are often perceived as lazy, sloppy or even lacking social skills. In reality, they have the same emotional and social needs of all children.

- Put yourself in their shoes. Children shouldn't be ostracized for being different or for potential health issues. Negative bias and comments can be very hurtful.

- Don't publicize the problem. Martin recalls one particular instance in which a physical education coach made jokes about students' heights and weights in front of their classmates. Ridicule can cause negative views about exercise and sports and lead to lower levels of physical activity in the long run.

Martin also encourages parents and educators to think about their behaviors and past responses toward obese children to determine any bias that might be present.

"Examining and reflecting is an important step," he said. "Once a person determines that he or she treats people differently based on weight, adjustments can be made."

American College of Sports Medicine