Not to scale

How the war against child obesity is going to backfire.

A few weeks back, author Harriet Brown wrote a fantastic piece for The Huffington Post on the unintended negative effects of the US’s enthusiastic “war” on childhood obesity. In case you, like myself, live in a cave and don’t already know these things, this battle has as its general the charming and rather fit first lady Michelle Obama. The goal is simple: to make the US a healthier, happier country by encouraging children to eat well and get plenty of exercise.

And who could argue with that? We all want our kids to be healthy, right? And who could do anything but swoon at the words of Ms Obama, she of buff upper arm and organic kitchen garden? A nation of healthy, active children is surely a good thing.

The plague of childhood obesity is, apparently, an insidious enemy sweeping the land, worse than smoking and fossil fuels and Styrofoam and the Taliban combined. It’s enough to make you hover over your child, measuring her or his serving sizes and having her of his BMI charted fortnightly, clutching your carrot peeler in white-knuckled terror that your progeny might, despite your best efforts, end up being The Fat Kid.

Well, you know what? She or he might. And you know what else? Big friggin’ deal.

There are a whole lot of flaws in the discourse around childhood obesity. First of all, it’s not a plague. Are there more overweight children now than there have been in the past? Depends on which study you read. At my child’s school, which is an urban K-to-6 representing a fairly broad socioeconomic and cultural sample, there are a handful of larger kids, a handful of rather slight kids, and the rest are in the middle. The larger of the kids climb endlessly up and down the playground equipment and tear around the soccer field along with their classmates, which leads me to believe that they’re just as fit as anyone else. They seem to have plenty of energy, which suggests that they probably eat as balanced a diet as their peers. So what’s the problem? If they’re just as healthy as the other kids, why hassle them about the size of their jeans?

Because our culture seems to swallow, without question, the notion that heavier people are, each and every one, miserably unhealthy. And that they are unhealthy because they are heavy. And that they are heavy because they spend all day on the couch, living off of high fructose corn syrup and take-out hamburgers.

Well, dear reader, it’s horsecrap.

First of all, how much weight a body wants to carry depends on that body. Someone of my height but with a more delicate frame might be at her healthiest at 120 pounds. I’d probably perish if I got that thin. And I know plenty of women who outweigh me by half and who could still kick my ass in a dance-a-thon, and look gorgeous all the while. I say that if you can do that, you’ve got an ideal body. I know plenty of people who might look like they’re at a “perfect” weight, but who would get winded doing the same uphill walk that I do every day. Size is a crappy indicator of overall health. It’s crappy to assume that if a larger-than-average person happens to be ill, that the illness is caused (or even exacerbated) by size. Your heart or knees might have to work harder to lug extra pounds around, while mine might be of tougher mettle.

It’s also crappy to assume that people who are of larger-than-average size eat crappy food all day. They probably don’t, and even if they did, it’s none of your business.

Now, take all this and apply it to children. Sweet, innocent, vulnerable school-aged children. Of course, as parents we all want our kids to eat well. But we seem much less concerned about whether they eat happily. The very idea that children my daughter’s age are being taught that their health goal should be to avoid getting fat by avoiding any food with fat in it is just appalling. Anyone who knows kids (dare I add, especially girls), knows that the result of this message is not going to be a future of glowing health, but a constant judgment of friends’ lunches and the incessant comparison of one growing body to another. Kids already spend their time comparing themselves to everyone around them (“Allison has lost more teeth than I have!” “Jessica’s hair is curlier than mine!” “You gave James more juice than you gave me!”). Do we really need to emphasize the differences in weight, too?

I do believe that certain foods are better for you than others. Garlic is good for your blood. Whole grains keep your digestive system happy. Yogurt and olive oil cure most ills. I also believe that chocolate cheesecake can help bandage, if not heal, a broken heart, and that salt meat and potatoes can bring together the generations in a harmonious state of mutual respect. Organic foods are generally better than non-organic foods, but there’s nothing wrong with a Super Mae West, either. Some of the foods I love are full of “bad” things, but dammit, they are oh, so very good.

Despite our culture’s insistence that everyone is a complete idiot, most people, even children, know how to eat well. If children gravitate toward high-fat, calorie-dense foods, it’s probably because they need them. They’re growing, after all, and that takes far more energy than does the commute from one’s office to one’s house. Their brains are growing, too, and brains need things like fat and cholesterol to work properly. A person with a healthy relationship with her or his body will know when to eat more green vegetables or more protein or more fat just by listening to her or his body’s cues. But it’s practically impossible to have a healthy relationship with your body when you’ve grown up counting grams of fat and watching your every calorie and measuring yourself against an impossible goal.

We need to teach children that they need to eat good meals to make their bodies strong, so they can play soccer, or to do yoga, or to dance, or to dig up rocks, or to run up the stairs in order to slide down the banister fifteen times in a row, or whatever it is that makes them feel most alive. And that they need to eat well in order to keep their brains growing, so that they can read, and write songs, and ask questions, and come up with answers, and make up stories. They should never have to hear the word “fat.” Or “overweight” Or “obese.” They should hear “feel good,” and “have lots of energy,” and “sleep well at night.” They should hear, “so you can have lots of fun.”

One more thing: the big kids know they’re big. Because kids notice everything. What they need to know is not that they’re bigger than the other kids, but that they’re wonderful, and that they’re as valued and as beautiful and as loved as any other kid. None of us might ever say out loud that larger people are of lesser value than their more slender friends, but that’s what comes across every time we say, “I couldn’t possibly eat that; I’d be huge!” or “Too many burgers will make you fat, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Every time we mutter something under our breath when a larger-than-average person is seen in public eating anything other than carrot sticks. Every time we claim to feel guilty about something we’ve eaten. Our kids hear it, and they remember it, and they internalize it, and they repeat it. The effects of this are far worse than the effects of all the high fructose corn syrup and fast-food burgers in the world.

23 comments

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29 March 2007

  1. Elling Lien · March 29, 2007

    Hear hear.

    One minor thing I disagree with: “…They probably don’t, and even if they did, it’s none of your business.”

    With a public health care system, when someone eats a lot of crappy food and it is negatively affecting their health, it is, in a way, everyone’s business. People have freedom to do what they want, but there also must be a degree of obligation to make choices that won’t hurt the rest of the herd unnecessarily.

  2. Adam Clarke · March 29, 2007

    A lot of the recent hoopla over childhood obesity has to do with one of TV’s most idiotic figures, Jamie Oliver. Oliver, who encourages parents to tell their pre-pubescent children that they’re going to die young and horribly because of dietary choices, is one of England’s greatest CHUDs. And remember, this is a country that houses Piers Morgan and Ant & Dec.

  3. Andreae · March 29, 2007

    E, I would buy that argument *if* we applied it across the board, and said the same thing about any other kind of behaviour that might (possibly) cause someone to rack up hospital bills to be paid out of the public purse: bicycling without a helmet, taking part in extreme sports, working in a crab processing plant, whatever. Singling out one “risky” (if you will) behaviour and leaving many other behaviours and habits alone is ridiculous. Either we monitor everybody’s activities in the name of health care savings, or we leave everyone alone.

    I would also wager than anyone who subsists mainly on fast food (regardless of their size) probably already feels kind of shitty, and shaking fingers at them while repeating “health care bills health care bills health care bills” is probably not going to be the thing to help them change their eating habits. (Not that that’s what you’re doing, but you know what I mean.)

  4. Andreae · March 29, 2007

    Oh, Jamie Oliver. So much to love about him (like his magical way of wrapping everything in bacon), and so much to hate. I haven’t seen his t.v. show (shows?) but I’ve read a lot of very negative commentary. I should check them out, but I think my brain might explode with righteous rage.

  5. pathofradish · March 29, 2007

    Jamie Oliver saves lives.

  6. Adam Clarke · March 29, 2007

    Jamie Oliver tries patience

  7. Lori · March 29, 2007

    Fitting all adults to the BMI scale makes little sense – applying it to children even less so. I made an effort to eat healthier and move more in 2010. I lost *maybe* 5lbs, but I feel a heck of a lot healthier than I did when I was 25lbs lighter from eating calorie-reduced, fat-free, processed foods.

    I do wish wholesome fruits and veggies were cheaper than junk food, and that the notion that “cooking is hard, why not eat out? cooking takes so much time, but this high-sodium pre-packaged frozen food will make it so much quicker” wasn’t so prevalent.

  8. Elling Lien · March 29, 2007

    Just to make it clear, I wasn’t talking about body mass at all, just people who eat lots of crappy food to the point where it negatively affects their health.

    You’re right, of course I’m not necessarily arguing for shaking fingers at an individual who eats crappy food, or for making burgers illegal (I would.. *sniff*.. NEVER..)

    But there certainly are people who are eating junk food to the point where it negatively affects their health. Are they doing it because they don’t know any better? No. Are they eating lots of it because they don’t have access to cheap, good food? More likely. Are they eating it because they don’t have enough time because they have to work too many hours to earn a living? Even more likely.

    So some people are not really making the decision.

    The reason it’s important to know who is eating crappy food is to ensure they actually have access to cheap, healthy food, and that they are actually making a choice. That’s where it becomes important for the public to know what’s on the go.

  9. Cupcakes · March 29, 2007

    While the situation described in the HuffPo article does sound horrific, it seems that the focus on obesity has had some positive effects on the new USDA food guidelines. There is a big push to reduce sodium content, and to think of larger diet patterns (like Mediterranean and vegetarian diets). This doesn’t affect average consumers, but may involve changes in institutional settings. The new guidelines also address socio-economic access issues.

    Salon has a great article:

    http://www.salon.com/food/nutrition/?story=/food/francis_lam/2010/07/01/usda_dietary_guidelines

    I also really, really, really LOVE The Fat Nutritionist blog. I worked at an inner city community centre which supplied emergency food for a long time, and her take on food and socio-economic realities totally reflected my experience.

    http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/if-only-poor-people-understood-nutrition/

    Anyway, thanks again Food Nerd for an excellent and thought provoking article!

  10. jennifer · March 29, 2007

    Really great article Andreae.
    Your comment about kids knowing they’re big is especially true. And they often get tormented enough by their own peers at school.
    People become overweight for lots of different reasons, I suspect.
    I was an overweight kid and I played lots of sports growing up. I also don’t remember eating hamburgers every day.

  11. Wow · March 29, 2007

    As a regular visitor of the United States, I can honestly say I see a level of childhood obesity there that I would consider unacceptable. On my last visit there I noticed school children eating huge portions at lunchtime at a restaurant I was visiting. I had a chicken sandwich and a large green salad (no dressing) with water to drink. The kids next to me at the same chicken sandwich but had fries and gravy and pop to drink. Other than the char-broiled chicken there is absolutely nothing else worth eating on their plate.

    I saw adults and teens and children alike, all with bulging waistlines, consuming the most unhealthy choices in a potentially-healthy restaurant.

    Nobody will ever convince me that eating that way has no real effect on their overall health. I know I was on vacation for the week and I ate mostly healthy food, and still came back feeling like I had gained 5 lbs. It’s a combination of less-than-ideal food and too-little exercise (that’s what vacation is about I suppose).

    I personally think children need to learn to be fit and healthy and make choices that will fuel their body for all the playtime they can get at their age.

  12. D.D. · March 29, 2007

    Public responsibility for the kinds of foods that are marketed to children and made available to them in their schools, homes, and neighborhoods is well overdue (and thankfully, being addressed at present, for example in our own school system). It’s a concept that is very different than, and shouldn’t be mistaken for, emphasis on body size and the aesthetic ideals of weight and appearance. Caution is necessary as to how these efforts are taken, of course, so that the emphasis doesn’t shift to the aesthetic. But the idea that we collectively don’t have a responsibility to recognize the garbage that is marketed (often and if at all possible, to children) as food, and to try and reorganize their (and our) definition of what constitutes nourishment, just seems… well… lazy. And that’s a can of worms I’ll leave unopened.

  13. Andreae · March 29, 2007

    Yes, yes to that. Subsidies for healthier foods and better access generally would make a huge difference, I think. Think of how much cheaper Pepsi is than milk in much of the province. Not exactly setting the stage for lifelong health there.

  14. Heather · March 29, 2007

    I just finished reading this article and right after I had to run to a computer to comment. I was reading the paper article of course, while munching on some tasties. Internet generally does not agree with me.
    I just needed to let you know that this article, in my humble and maybe not so sought after opinion, was nothing short of wonderful. So well written, passionate, and true as the sky is blue.. sometimes.. But really. Loved it. Appreciate it. Hope that many, many people take the time to read it.
    Now hopefully this internet do-hickey will let me send this properly.

  15. kenelda · March 29, 2007

    “It’s also crappy to assume that people who are of larger-than-average size eat crappy food all day. They probably don’t, and even if they did, it’s none of your business.”

    Noted. But I think it’s important to look at some statistics here. How many people die of heart disease each year? Diabetes? All those awful, debilitating diseases (often) induced by too much “crappy food?” I don’t think “the war on obesity” has been designed with the intent of punishing kids who are naturally a little bigger. I think the fundamental idea is that there is something very, very wrong with our relationship to food as a society, and something needs to be done.

    The fact is people who are obese are unhealthy. The author of this article cited body size and said its not an indicator of overall health. I agree completely…it’s not! If you can do a 5 K run, if you eat a healthy diet and walk every evening, if you can compete in a dance-off and hold your own for an extended period of time…I would say you don’t have a problem.

    But, fighting obesity isn’t synonymous with targeting people who have a bigger body structure. It’s about people who are unhealthy, people who are too fat to engage in everyday life, people who have made too many unhealthy choices and are now suffering, and acting as a strain on the healthcare system at the same time.

    I really think the author of this article missed the point. I found the piece really short-sighted and defensive. No one should make a child (or anyone, for that matter) feel like less of a person because of their physical appearance. Fighting obesity isn’t about that. Anyone who has a clue will understand that combatting childbood obesity is about helping kids gain self-esteem, not taking it away.

  16. PowerUnit · March 29, 2007

    As a type 1 diabetic in my 35th year of battle, I have chosen to study nutrition. It started out as an objective to find a best way of eating for my many diabetic friends of all types and myself, but it goes beyond that. Our “western” nutritional practices affect us all. I am no expert, but I have developed rather firm beliefs. I put my beliefs into practice too. I am down 20lbs in the last two years, my lipds are perfect, my A1C is a near perfect 5.6%, and I feel great.

    I do believe this whole slate of western diseases and conditions — obesity, diabetes, CHD, cancer, dimensia, etc is a result of poor nutrition. We [kids too] aren’t fat because we sit in front of tv’s and computers all day; we are fat because we eat unhealthy diets. We are slovely because we are unhealthy. I don’t just pull this idea out of my ***. I first learned of it from reading Gary Taubes. Since then Dr. Robert Lustig has shown this is scientifically true and has provided reasons. He treats obese children. He doesn’t make them run laps; he removes fructose from their diets. They lose weight and they become active.

    The main problem with our food IMHO is money. Food producers want to make money more than they want to make us healthy. They breed, process, blend, substitute, degrade, blah, blah, blah all in the name of the dollar. Our wheat is not the wheat Jesus ate. It is extremely potent stuff. I no longer touch it. Sugar is cheap and is added to almost every processed food. Modern vegetable oils are an abomination of nature. Did you know they have to be deodorized because much of what they sell us is rancid? And our livestock is kept in small cages and force-fed high glycemic foods they have no business eating. They are obese, unhealthy animals. Not only is it a moral tragedy but a nutritional nightmare.

    At the top of the pile of crap leading us all blindly is the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee (DGAC). This bunch of “scientists” are entirely funded by agri-business, the very outfits trying to make an easy buck. It’s the fox leading the hens. The western world follows this
    group’s advice.

    Real. natural, and healthy food is hard to find and expensive. And even if we all decided to eat this way, there’s no way the world’s farms and oceans could support it. We can barely feed the planet with teh crap we have now. Regardeless of what we do or say, we are stuck with this health crisis for the foreseeable future.

  17. Ness · March 29, 2007

    Obesity is not the same as overweight, and childhood obesity is a huge problem. You obviously were not a fat kid in school. It’s a whole different world knowing that you cannot jump as high as everyone else, or run as fast, and that you’re much more likely to get pinned in dodge ball because you’re so damn huge. Size does not really matter, yes, but obesity is a plague and a disease. It does not indicate healthiness, by any means. And sure, tubby-Tommy-two shoes can run fast like slim Sally but an hour later, he might have an angina, and die. Excess fat creates excess stress on the heart, and by encouraging and allowing children to consume horrific nutrition-less foods like Vienna sausages, cheese slices/whiz, and even kraft icing sugar (oh, I mean “peanut butter”), and chips, pop, vachon cakes and other such foolishness you’re encouraging them to believe that garbage food = happiness. And therefore basically telling them that heart disease by the age of 20 is super awesome cool!
    Seriously, how can you sit there and agree with a generation of malnourished obese children? How is it any different than a group of anorexics? Their bodies are starving for healthy sustenance. And you’re robbing them of that by telling them it’s okay to be obese.
    Give your children a future, and feed them some real food.

  18. the Swedish Flowerpot · March 29, 2007

    Hmmm.

    I feel like, though many people are saying the author of the article is missing the point with the “war on childhood obesity”, many of you are missing the author’s point in the article. For an easy, close to my heart example, I’m a healthy young woman of 22, 5’9″ and I weigh 139 lbs. According to BMI and my body-fat, I’m perfectly healthy, right where I’m supposed to be, yet due to a very great and negative focus on weight in todays society I still feel the need to lose weight and go to the gym. It’s unhealthy to want to lose weight when you’re perfectly healthy, but scanning through the tv-channels at 5pm on a weekday will lead me to oh, 4 or 5 shows about losing weight. “Biggest Loser”, “Bulging Brides”, “Last 10 lbs Bootcamp”, “Heavy” a.s.o. And watching these people struggling with their weight and their health terrifies me and has created the steady, nagging voice in the back of my head any time I consume something that I know might potentially be unhealthy for me (well, is, but that same nagging voice drags me to the gym 3-4 times a week to make sure anything I consumed that would’ve made me gain weight will now be worked off frantically).
    I was brought up in a family where whole-grain was the norm and refined wheat or sugar something that we might treat ourselves to every once in a while, where organic wasn’t the question but the answer and any ingredient that we didn’t know what it meant wasn’t supposed to be consumed. With a farm of 42 acres me and my siblings had lots of space to roam around and stay healthy. And we did. We were all healthy but my younger sister and the younger of my older brothers were still thinner than me (too thin according to many BMI charts today) which made me, normal-weight, perfectly fit me, feel like a lump of fat, who at 16 would stand in the mirror trying to make my curves look smaller when they were truly unnoticeable by anyone but myself.
    So yes, obesity is a problem. It is a health-problem, a self-confidence and motivation problem. It isn’t easy, for the people who are obese or those who have to support them through this. But I don’t feel that the focus today is so much on helping those who’s weight is restricting them from leading the life they wish for, as much as making perfectly healthy and normal people feel unattractive and unhappy with themselves.

  19. wordup · March 29, 2007

    I don’t for a second consider, being “of larger-than-average size” and being obese to be the same thing. If you are 50 pounds or more overweight for your body type, you are probably not super healthy.

    Larger-than-average however of course can be healthy.
    Not everyone is supposed to fit into a size 5.

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