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How Fighting Childhood Obesity Can Cause Anorexia

I have no doubt that Michelle Obama started her Let’s Move initiative because wants nothing but the best for our nation’s children.  But Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia, brings up some poignant and critical points about the anti-obesity campaign in her latest column on The Huffington Post.  Her overall concern: trying to make kids thinner actually makes them fat.

Brown says she’s “conflicted about the report released in mid-May by Michelle Obama’s task force on childhood obesity,” because the “ideas are all presented in the service of a single goal: to make kids thinner.”  She feels it’s dangerous to suggest “that thin is synonymous with healthy, and that we can (and should) make kids thinner.”  This opinion is based, of course, on her daughter’s struggle with anorexia.  But take one look at where her daughter’s illness started – in her middle school “wellness” class – and you can see that her concerns are not entirely misplaced.

Brown recalls her daughter Kitty coming home from school and announcing at dinner, “Sugar is bad for you, and from now on I’m skipping dessert.”  She pinpoints that moment as the beginning of her daughter’s “descent into the hell of anorexia nervosa, a disease that kills 20 percent of those who develop it.”  She argues that though Kitty may have been pre-disposed to anorexia, “the messages the teacher drilled into the class — cut back on “unhealthy” foods like dessert, don’t eat dietary fat, get as much exercise as possible — helped tip her over the edge into the restricting and overexercising that nearly killed her.”

Brown cites an array of studies that show “dieting promotes weight gain rather than weight loss” and says she worries “that emphasizing weight rather than health will make life harder for all children, fat and thin, in our already appearance-obsessed culture. These days, kids start worrying about being fat as early as age five.”  She’s also concerned that “heavier kids, who already face discrimination, stigma, and bullying, will become even more vulnerable to low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviors.”

Strollerderby blogger Paula Bernstein, who suffered from an eating disorder, shared the story of her struggle to “relax around food” so that her daughters will grow up with a healthy outlook about eating.  In it, she mentions the fear she felt when her 8-year-old asked about dieting.  I can relate.  My 4-year-old mentions quite frequently that “sugar is bad for you” and that she “has to eat healthy.”  These ideas come to her from her father, a 6’4″ rail thin man who has never had to be concerned about his weight.  He inadvertently sends her mixed messages, one minute talking about food as if it’s that easy to categorize (orange juice has tons of sugar, but he drinks a glass every morning) and then buying her an ice cream cone for dessert.

I don’t claim to be a nutrition expert, but I don’t think we’d have to keep talking about food if we’d just do what common sense dictates, and what The Omnivore’s Dilemma scribe Michael Pollan has made his mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

And that’s where Brown is on Obama’s side.  She notes that many of the First Lady’s “recommendations are far-sighted and positive: Support breastfeeding. Encourage physical activity and limit screen time for kids. Allocate more money for the school lunch program. Support farm-to-school initiatives. Get more grocery stores into low-income neighborhoods. Teach kids how marketing affects their food choices.”  Telling a kid that sugar, which occurs naturally in lots of good-for-you foods, is bad seems to be far less effective than teaching them that the real enemy is Tucan Sam.

Photo: Kellogg’s

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