How to Win the Weight Battle
Tackling obesity the wrong way makes matters worse. Here's a right way
Schools have taken a stab at introducing the basics of good nutrition and the four food groups. But such efforts pale beside a cutback of gym time in favor of academics and vending machines stocked with high-calorie (and high-profit-margin) snack foods. More than 90 percent of elementary schools don't provide daily physical education, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the share of high school students participating in daily gym has dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2005. Some states have reconsidered and passed laws to increase phys ed, but plenty of schools have yet to figure out how to comply; in California, more than half the school districts have failed to implement the 20 minutes a day of physical activity that the state law now requires, according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
While eating too much and exercising too little clearly put children's health in jeopardy, so might the methods used to change their behavior. As with any losing war, this one lacks a battle plan that everyone agrees upon. Robert Jeffery, director of the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, is one of many who believe that the solution lies in focusing more attention on body weight by screening kids at school and educating them about the dangers of obesity. One Minnesota high school last year showed the documentary Super Size Me, for example, to illustrate the ill effects that greasy burgers and fries have on the body. And proactive states like Florida and Pennsylvania mandate that schools weigh students yearly and send letters home warning parents if their child's body mass index, a number that relates weight to height, is too high. Down the hall and around the corner from Jeffery, meanwhile, Minnesota's Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, who studies adolescent eating behaviors, argues that such "overzealous efforts" may push teens to seek a quick and unhealthful weight-loss remedy. "Overweight teens are far more likely to turn to these risky behaviors instead of incorporating exercise or a more nutritious diet," she says.
Jillian Croll, a nutritionist who treats eating disorders at the Anna Westin House, a private facility in Chaska, Minn., has seen the evidence. "We find ourselves unteaching" girls raised to believe that their self-worth is measured by how much they weigh, she says. On a June afternoon tour of the suburban house filled with handmade quilts and stuffed teddy bears, the mood is tense as the eight residents sit down to sloppy Joes and buttered broccoli.
No joke. The path to an eating disorder is often paved with the good intentions of parents and educators who presume that warning and cajoling or joking will motivate children to lose weight. Neumark-Sztainer's findings suggest just the opposite in a study of 130 previously overweight teens. About 65 percent of the teens reported being teased about their body weight, and they were more likely to engage in binge eating, which leads to weight gain over time. And when parents harp on children's body weight, kids are also likely to become preoccupied with achieving thinness, says Neumark-Sztainer. Her research found that approaches that may be effective weight-loss strategies in adults, like daily weigh-ins and attempting a restricted diet, may trigger diet-pill use and purging in teens.