Should Kids Be Warned About the Dangers of Obesity?
Two experts offer contrary opinions on whether schools should focus on body weight
Clarification on 8/31/07: An earlier version of this article framed the debate around the value of obesity prevention programs for children rather than on whether these programs should be focused on the negatives of excess body weight.
During the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have tripled, and more than 9 million kids are now obese. To reverse the trend, some experts say, we need to talk to kids about the dangers of being overweight. But others contend that this fosters body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Two nationally known experts at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, whose offices are within shouting distance of one another, have diverging opinions on the issue. U.S. News sat down with each and posed this question.
Should obesity prevention programs in schools focus on body weight?
Robert Jeffery, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and director of its Obesity Prevention Center
Yes. I don't see any benefit in denying that we've got an obesity epidemic. If we pretend it doesn't exist, our kids will suffer the long-term consequences. Instead of obesity rates increasing by 1 percent a decade, as they did up until the 1980s, we now see an increase of 1 percent per year. Part of this is due to food costs: The prices for high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil—both common ingredients in processed foods—and sugar soda have dropped over the past 15 years, while the price of fresh produce has risen by 40 percent. Is it any wonder we're eating more sweets and fewer fruits and vegetables? Combine this with a lower rate of physical activity in kids, and suddenly we see a shift in the natural order of things.
The only way to stop this increase is to pay attention to it and consciously do things to slow it down. I think many approaches could work. Educating kids on the dangers of obesity and the importance of good nutrition can certainly have an impact. They need to pay attention to how much they're eating and make a concerted effort to get daily physical activity. We might also consider putting a sin tax on junk food to encourage parents to buy less.
Although some eating-disorder researchers might think that any attention paid to body weight could be potentially hazardous in terms of encouraging a poor body image, we really don't have much evidence of that. In fact, studies have shown that kids who participate in weight-control programs eat more healthfully than those who don't. What I'm more concerned about is a general increase in the acceptance of heavier body weights. Many children don't know what overweight looks like anymore because it's become so commonplace. We don't want to see parents outliving their kids, but that could very well happen.
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and principal investigator for Project EAT, an ongoing study of adolescent eating and dieting behaviors
No. In addressing the problem of obesity, we need to take into account the importance of body image, particularly among teens. My research has shown that the more you talk to them about weight issues, the more likely they are to turn to dangerous dieting behaviors like restricting calories and using laxatives and diet pills. Even discussing weight control in the context of healthy behaviors, like eating fruits and vegetables and exercising more, may have these unintended consequences. It's such a sensitive topic, and teens tend to hear what they want to hear, like: "My mom thinks I'm fat, so I'd better go on a diet."
For this reason, we need to put far less emphasis on weight and far more emphasis on overall health. Parents should avoid making weight-related comments and instead spend more time creating a healthful environment at home. In other words, they should do more and talk less. My advice: Banish TV from the bedrooms and soda from the fridge; go for a bike ride or run if you want your kids to value physical fitness; plan family dinners to show them a well-balanced meal and appropriate portion sizes.
After all, studies have shown that the most effective school interventions focus on behavioral changes rather than weight changes. While we certainly can't afford to ignore the problem of obesity, we have a long way to go in developing messages and solutions that work for addressing the full range of problems from excess body weight to dangerous dieting behaviors to eating disorders.
Bottom line: Both experts agree that children need to be educated on choosing appropriate foods and incorporating an adequate amount of activity into their day. But this should be done with the emphasis on maintaining good health, rather than on avoiding excess body fat.