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Concerns About Efforts to “Fight” Childhood Obesity

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

I have become increasingly concerned about some efforts to address childhood obesity. A sentence in a recent American Dietetic Association (ADA) newsletter prompted me to put my thoughts into a cohesive form: The House and Senate are considering resolutions that would recognize September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.

I am so concerned about the dangers and unintended consequences of this idea that I set up a blog (http://eatwellatschool.blogspot.com/) to discuss issues related to childhood obesity, especially in terms of schools. I have shared my thoughts widely with colleagues and urged my Congressional representatives to vote NO on childhood obesity awareness month. This issue is much more than a current political buzz phrase; it involves the emotional well-being, the physical health, and even the educational futures of millions of American children. Here’s why I care so much about how we approach children’s health.

As regular readers know, I am a passionate, long-time advocate for optimal childhood nutrition and for healthy school environments. My professional work and much of my personal life is dedicated to ensuring that all children are fit, healthy, and ready to succeed.

Sadly, the current drumbeat of childhood obesity is often negative and narrowly focused. I believe that we need to reframe the discussion to be positive and inclusive. We need to promote healthy habits that support achievable, realistic, healthy weights for children (and adults) of all shapes and sizes.

Based on a growing body of evidence, I am seriously concerned that “obesity awareness” may have unintended consequences. If we look at this from the perspective of an overweight young person - the individual it is designed to help - it may cause significant harm. A recent New York Times essay on For Obese People, Prejudice in Plain Sight (www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/health/16essa.html) described a high school wellness campaign:

Hallways were plastered with posters saying “Prevent teenage obesity.” After the posters went up, the girl said, schoolmates began taunting her in the halls, pointing at the obese girl on the posters and saying, “Look at the fat chick.”

She said heavier students were now made to feel guilty about their lunch choices, but the thin ones could eat anything they wanted without comment — even if it was exactly what the fat kids were eating.

“Stigmatization gives the thinner kids permission to think there’s something wrong with the larger kids,” Dr. Bacon, the nutrition researcher, said. “And it doesn’t help them look at their own health habits. There’s got to be a way to do this more respectfully and more effectively.

I strongly believe that any efforts to address childhood obesity should not cause more problems, especially for young people who are already vulnerable from being teased or bullied. I have urged my colleagues - and those involved with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign - to watch a profound video (featuring young actors) made by the Rudd Center at Yale: www.youtube.com/watch?v=92rWQ-OIb1Y&feature=related.

Dr. Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center writes persuasively about the effects of weight stigma and school success:

Obese children aren't doing worse in school because they're not as smart as thinner students. They're doing worse in school because they face frequent (and often daily) victimization and harassment from peers because of their weight.

For me, the goal is what can we do to help young people of all weights, shapes, and sizes to be healthier, happier, and perform better academically? I want programs to be about healthy habits and healthy environments for all children. No fat boot camps, no biggest loser contests at school, and no fat vests for educational purposes. I believe that effective programs must avoid the obesity label and focus on all the positive reasons for kids to eat well and be active - great taste, body energy, brain power, school success, sports strength, and old-fashioned fun!



Dayle HayesDayle Hayes, MS, RD
Author, Speaker, and Nutrition Therapist

Dayle Hayes is a registered dietitian committed to innovative, delicious nutrition solutions for busy families. As a consultant to Billings Clinic, she specializes in positive nutrition tips, eating disorders, and sports nutrition. Dayle graduated from U. Mass-Boston and received a Masters of Science in Community Health Education from U. Mass-Amherst.
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