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I saw a television interview on WSJ’s “Lunch Break” where Shirley Wang discussed the horrifying trend resulting from weight loss efforts targeting children.
As anti-obesity campaigns increase, childhood obesity has decreased, and childhood eating disorders have increased. Many anti-obesity campaigns teach children to choose “good” or “healthy” foods and restrict “bad” or “unhealthy” foods to lose weight. Weight loss is encouraged as the way for “obese” or “overweight” children to decrease illness and health problems by getting “healthy.”
The problem: Restricting eating for the purpose of losing weight is called dieting, which is linked to physical illness and health complications. Dieting is also one of the primary risk factors for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders compromise physical and mental health, cause medical problems, and can be fatal, making them no less dangerous than childhood obesity or weight-related health problems. Most frightening of all, eating disorders are lethal with anorexia being the most deadly of any other mental health disorder, including depression.
Here is a common scenario: A child who is obese, overweight, of normal weight, or below normal weight decides to get healthy by losing weight. Perhaps they feel fat, are told to lose weight, are called “fat” by peers, are afraid of becoming “fat” or want to lead a “healthy” lifestyle, and they begin to restrict “unhealthy” foods, frequency of eating, and/or portion sizes. Others may compensate after eating “bad” foods by purging, using laxatives, exercising, or other means of ridding their bodies of calories. Weight loss is evident, self-discipline is praised, and reinforcement flows from peers, authority figures, families, and/or medical providers. Such reinforcement usually leads to an increase in those weight loss behaviors. Many of my clients’ eating disorders started exactly this way.
When children who are considered “overweight” and unhealthy lose weight it is often treated as desirable and healthy, often with less attention to weight loss methods, physical complications, or mental health complications. When disordered eating patterns develop they are more frequently overlooked, delaying diagnosis and treatment of any long or short-term health complications or eating disorder behaviors that may be showing up. When diagnoses are delayed treatment is delayed and these delays decrease the prognosis.
We must protect our children from anti-obesity campaigns that encourage dieting with the goal of losing weight for health. The tools below can help you identify ways to intervene:

  • Focus less on weight loss and more on balancing nutrition and activity with a wide range of both, then allowing the body to find its natural, healthy place within that.
  • Teach the value of regular nutrition over skipping meals or snacks.
  • Instead of avoiding “bad” foods, or decreasing the range, frequency and amounts of food, focus on increasing the range of foods selected. Allow all foods as fuel for the body. Instead of restricting potato chips, focus on letting them be okay and enjoying them. Combine this with increasing the variety of foods to include a wider selection of color, vegetables, fruits, and other foods with higher nutritional value.
  • Focus on physical movement with a frequency and intensity that prepares them for life activities and accomplishments they desire to move toward, like preparing their body for climbing by increasing their strength and endurance. Encourage and join them in outside play and activities instead of indoor gyms when possible.

Let us teach children that healthy bodies are created by finding their natural place of health through structured and mindful eating as well as structured and mindful physical activity, not by reaching a number on a scale. From this place we can strive to protect, respect, and maintain our bodies in a way that helps us live our passions, purpose, and values.

This blog post was written by Espra Andrus, LCSW, author of MAKING PEACE WITH YOUR PLATE: Eating Disorder Recovery

This blog post was written by Espra Andrus, LCSW, author of MAKING PEACE WITH YOUR PLATE: Eating Disorder Recovery