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Do Anti-Obesity Programs Cause Eating Disorders in Kids? No.

From Georgia's recent anti-obesity campaign. Photo Credit: Strong4Life.org

A report this week from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health looks at a correlation between school-based obesity prevention programs and children who exhibit at least one behavior that could indicate the development of an eating disorder. The report asserts that obesity prevention programs in schools may increase the likelihood of these behaviors. Essentially, that anti-obesity programs are scaring kids into starving themselves or over-exercising.

As a mom of 3 and a Public Health professional, this assertion has me concerned. There are 4 reasons why this study makes me pause:

1.This is one poll. There are thousands of studies that show that anti-obesity education programs effect positive behavior change.

The research shows that education is a crucial component of prevention. The results from one survey can’t possibly be significant enough to undermine the value and validity of all school-based obesity prevention programs. There are a myriad reasons and correlative effects that could account for the negative behaviors noted in the survey.  The most significant of which is the age of the students in question (they ranged in age from 6-14).  It is precisely at this age when body image begins to affect behavior — which is why the need for health education remains so important. 

2. These headlines may discourage future obesity prevention and health promotion programming in schools.

Our schools and the public health system are currently cash-strapped. In a resource-scarce environment, little excuse is needed to do away with non-essential programs.  But where else are kids to learn about nutrition and making healthy choices than in school?  While both educators and health professionals hope that these lessons will also be learned at home, the data doesn’t support that. According to StopChildhoodObesity.org, 75% of parents in Georgia with overweight or obese children did not recognize it as a problem. School-based programs are critical in terms of teaching our kids about healthy eating and physical activity. For many (perhaps even the majority) of children, it may be the only place where they receive this information.

3. Childhood obesity is perhaps the most important pediatric Public Health issue this country is facing.

Successfully preventing obesity in this generation of children would be the single most effective way to improve the health of our nation’s population, reduce future health care costs, and increase life expectancy and quality of life. That mixed messages exist about the importance of prevention education is troubling. That a lack of clarity could diminish our commitment to solving this problem is unacceptable.

4. There is no clear consensus on the right way to do this and these findings only muddle the issue further.

Georgia’s recent campaign to address the issue of childhood obesity has been criticized as being too harsh. It has also been praised as being an appropriate response to a crisis situation. What is clear from both Georgia’s efforts and the recent Mott study is that there is not a public consensus on how to deal with this issue — only a heightened sense of frustration that something is broken and must be fixed.

But is it the general public’s responsibility to fix this? Of course it is — to a degree. It is every person’s responsibility to take an active role in their own health and work to protect the health of their children. It’s the role of educators, public health leaders, researchers and policy makers to give them the tools to do so. Tools that make sense. Messages that convey accurate information and clear, actionable steps. Communities need to be empowered with those tools to make the changes that work for them and make practical sense.

In short,  there needs to be more public in the public health response to this crisis. Best practices, research findings and promotion efforts should be done in a clear, accessible way that makes sense to families. So that the next time a headline like this begins to circulate around news sites, parents don’t feel a surge of fear or discouragement that something isn’t working — but rather confident that their community has the situation in hand.

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