Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs: Helping, Not Harming

By Marsha Hudnall
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As children around the world have gotten fatter, adults have watched with concern.  And sometimes acted on their worry by launching school-based programs that have concerned eating disorder professionals even more. Programs such as sending home 'weight report cards,' banning 'junk food' in cafeterias and even classroom birthday parties, limiting vending machines in school, and launching campaigns emphasizing the dangers of excess weight.  The problem? Not only do these efforts likely not work, they may inadvertently cause kids to focus inappropriately on weight and shape and begin unhealthy weight control practices.

The reason for concern among eating disorder professionals is based on a large body of evidence that shows an emphasis on appearance or weight control can foster disordered eating.  Example: 

  • When peers or parents make it clear that being thin is their preference, and encourage dieting or other practices whose sole aim is weight control, body dissatisfaction, dieting, low self-esteem and weight bias is the result among children and adolescents. 
  • What's more, weight control practices reliably predict greater weight gain than that of adolescents who do not engage in such practices.

So how are we supposed to help our children stay healthy?  The same way that's recommended for adults.  Focus on health, not weight.

To help schools and communities who want to really help their children, the Academy for Eating Disorders has just issued guidelines for childhood obesity prevention programs.   The guidelines make a number of important points that anyone working to establish effective childhood obesity prevention programs should consider.  They describe the ideal program:  "…an integrated approach that addresses risk factors for the spectrum of weight-related problems, including screening for unhealthy weight control behaviors; and promotes protective behaviors such as decreasing dieting, increasing balanced nutrition, encouraging mindful eating, increasing activity, promoting positive body image and decreasing weight-related teasing and harassment." 

Take the time to read the whole document; it's important. 

While we're talking about studies, a word about the latest diet study that 'showed' calories, not carbs, fat, or protein content, is what matters when it comes to losing weight.  Headlines were abuzz with the 'news,' but somehow failed to mention the fact that all the study participants were slowly regaining lost weight, regardless of the type of diet they had followed.  My point is obvious (I hope): I agree that carbs, fat, protein, etc., is not an accurate predictor of healthy weights.  But then again, neither are diets.  Healthy lifestyles are, and accepting the fact that there is a wide range of healthy weights that goes beyond that generally accepted.

4 Responses (Add Yours)

  • Amber says:

    Here Here!! I’m so glad to hear or another person that understands that healthy weight is a result of a healthy lifestyle and not of some crazy diet. We’ve changed our lifestyle and we feel great. We have a 3 yr old and 6 month old and we inforce this healthy lifesyle on them. It’s great. How many kids do you know that ask for strawberries for snacks and raw spinach w/o dressing for meals. Keep the healthy information coming. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  • Mark says:

    This is a great report and thanks for pointing it out. There are so many factors and no single one is of paramount importance. However, food policy does play a major role in having a healthy school environment – which is significant. This year the Child Nutrition Act is going to be reauthorized and we need to make sure that it passes with additional resources for schools to provide a healthier food environment for all kids. As one of the findings from the report said…

    # Interventions should focus on making children’s environments healthier rather than focusing solely on personal responsibility. In the school setting, these include serving healthy meals, providing opportunities for fun physical activities, implementing a no-teasing policy, and providing students and school staff with educational sessions about body image, media literacy, and weight bias.

  • marsha says:

    Great comment, Mark. Do you have suggestions for readers on how to make sure the Child Nutrition Act is passed with more resources?

  • Susan Diaz says:

    Children these days are not engaging themselves into exercise or physical activity. The main reason of growing obesity among children today is the popularity of computers and home based video games. They became so addicted that they have less reason or motivation to run around outside. Another cause of obesity among children is junk food, it is much more appealing to a kid than something healthy. Behavioral lifestyle therapy produces good weight-loss results; parents should engage their children more into outdoor games. To know more about

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