How to Win the Weight Battle
Tackling obesity the wrong way makes matters worse. Here's a right way
Shaming kids is prevalent in schools as well, and it's just as counterproductive there. A review paper published in the July issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin found that teachers perceive obese people to be sloppy and less likely to succeed than thinner people. Gym teachers usually have higher expectations for normal-weight kids, which means they might let heavier kids languish on the sidelines. "When kids are made to feel ashamed of themselves for being fat, they will cope by finding ways to make themselves feel better, often turning to food," says Schwartz. Studies have shown they're more likely to be depressed and dissatisfied with their bodies and develop other health problems like high blood pressure and eating disorders. "Yet I still hear educators and health professionals at conferences saying that weight bias serves a purpose."
School weight screenings, now performed in 16 states, have yielded mixed reviews. Though the report cards sent home with kids who have high body mass indexes work to inform parents about the problem, they don't provide effective solutions. "Many parents assume they should put their child on a diet," says Berkeley's Ikeda.
What's worse, the reports may be inaccurate. A government analysis found that 17 percent of kids who have a BMI that nudges them into the overweight category actually have a normal percentage of body fat but are large boned or have a greater muscle mass. Nine-year-old Ben Baturka, an avid swimmer who does up to 2 miles of laps while training for his swim meets, was put in the BMI "at risk" zone last year by Hillcrest Elementary School in Drexel Hill, Pa. "He's always been a big boy, but he's a healthy eater and as fit as he can be, so I'm going to ignore the school letter," says Ben's mother, Angie. The American Medical Association recently recommended that doctors perform BMI screenings during annual physicals, looking for weight-related health risks like hypertension or high cholesterol, too.
Some families go too far by turning healthful eating into a new religion. "Anorexia often starts with healthy eating behaviors, like cutting down on bread and other starches, that evolve to become too restrictive," says pediatrician Tania Heller, director of the Washington Center for Eating Disorders and Adolescent Obesity in Bethesda, Md. "My mom was always into organic food, so she didn't notice when I got on a health kick, running more miles and avoiding all fat in my diet," says Marina Leith, 17, who was treated by Heller for anorexia after dropping 30 pounds in less than two months four years ago. She's now a high school senior, back to a normal weight.
Think positive. How to get a child to a healthy weight in the healthiest possible way? Most experts now favor a positive approach—showing, for example, ways that exercise strengthens the body and refreshes the mind and how certain nutrients in foods help cells, organs, and bones grow properly. Hundreds of schools are now trying out Planet Health, a curriculum developed by Harvard University researchers that disguises obesity prevention by integrating healthful messages about the power of food and exercise into various subjects. Students in math class, for example, come to appreciate the importance of reducing TV viewing by calculating the hours they've spent over their lifetime in front of the set. A 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that middle school girls who had Planet Health in their schools were half as likely to purge or use diet pills as those in schools without it.