Weight of the Nation for Kids – Oh No

news liesHBO is upping the ante (and, I imagine the profitability) of their “Weight of the Nation” series with Weight of the Nation – Kids.  Just when you thought that HBO couldn’t conflate body size with health any more, now they’re adding kids to the mix.

The problem with this is that it could be amazing if they didn’t couch it as a war on fat people – and now on fat kids.  There’s a story about a girl who fights to get a salad bar in her school, and a group of teen activists who fight to have healthy, tasty (and local) food in their cafeteria. Their promo stuff goes on about nutritious food options and physical activity.

These aren’t bad things, per se.  But to the extent that they are good ideas, they are good because they are good for all kids, not because they might change the body size of kids. Focusing on weight is shown over and over again to lead to size-based bullying and increased eating disorders but not thinner or healthier people – and let’s remember that those are two different things.

But what does the research say?

Researchers studied the effects of “school based healthy-living programs.”  Turns out that these programs are being instituted in lots of schools, despite the fact that, per the researchers, there is little research on the effectiveness of these programs or any inadvertent harmful effects on children’s mental health.  This study found that these programs are actually triggering eating disorders in kids.  Dr. Leora Pinhas said “The programs present this idea that weight loss is good, that only thin is healthy…We live in a culture that stigmatizes fat people, and we’ve turned it into this kind of moralistic health thing.”

Research from the University of Minnesota found that “none of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain”.

A Canadian study found that eating disorders were more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. (Children UNDER 12) There was a 15% increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders in all ages across the same time period.

The Journal of Pediatrics has identified bullying of overweight/obese children as the #1 type of bullying that takes place.

So HBO is not exactly jumping on the success train here.  These studies aren’t difficult to find, it seems to me that if they were really interested in the health of kids and not, for example, capitalizing on a moment in time of massive prejudice toward a group for the way they look to gain profit and political points, they would have found this and changed their focus.

We can have a complete conversation about public health for people of all ages without once mentioning weight.  It’s easy, actually, since there aren’t separate healthy habits for thin people and fat people at any age.  When we talk about foods that are chemically designed to be nutritionally void, make us crave them, and interfere with our sense of fullness, then there are plenty of health arguments to be made, so we don’t need to create a fat panic.  When we talk about the benefits of movement, those benefits apply to people of all sizes.

Kids come in lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and the truth is we don’t know why, we don’t know how to change the sizes of kids, nor do we know if changing their size would change their health outcomes.  Medical experiments on kids without permission is what HBO is promoting, and it’s wrong.  Public health should be about providing information and access to people of all ages when it comes to food, movement, and healthcare.  Public health should not be about making fat people’s bodies the public’s business or trying to whip people up into a stereotyping, stigmatizing, prejudiced frenzy against part of the population for how they look.   HBO should know better and can do better.

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28 thoughts on “Weight of the Nation for Kids – Oh No

  1. What you say is also what I find most frustrating about t.v. programing. So much could be good… could be beneficial to many… if they just didn’t jump on the bandwagon of the diet industry, war on fat..etc. I love exercise, but I get so tired of the mantra of ‘burning calories’, ‘loosing inches’. I’m sharing this with my school’s food servie manager in hopes she will pass it on to the corporation they work for. I know the kitchen staff is very angry with the federal and state mandated changes that have come down from on high due to the first lady’s ‘war on fat’.

  2. When the hell are we going to admit to ourselves that food insecurity and eating disorders are real, significant health risks to our children? One in five kids in America suffers (and I do mean suffers!) from food insecurity. Eating disorders are skyrocketing… and it’s still impossible to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa if you don’t lose ‘enough’ weight! This is what’s going on in reality.

    I keep going back to an episode of the cooking competition Chopped where all the contestants were school lunch ladies. One woman got dinged for the large portion she served in the entree round. She didn’t cringe or apologize. Instead, she talked about how many children in her school can only depend on school lunch to get them fed and how many of them are excited to get back to school on monday because they haven’t had a full meal all weekend long. So she instituted Pasta Mondays where she would put together the biggest, densest, most satisfying meal she could for mondays after the kids hadn’t eaten for two days. She also talked about putting together backpacks of non-perishable snack foods for the most desperate kids to take home with them on fridays. Funnily enough, the judges shut up about unhealthily large portions after that. Also, this fabulous woman went on to win the grand prize of ten grand!

    But in a world of severe food insecurity, the thing I loved most was that that wonderful woman refused to be cowed by the made up epidemic of scary fat kids and talked about what’s really going on.

    I also keep going back to an article the late, great Molly Ivins wrote back in the eighties. I forget what the two issues she was talking about in the article were, but there was one that got all the public attention while there was another issue she considered far more dire that people were ignoring while they all wrung their hands over the one that got all the press. Her analogy was about people standing around getting into a swivet over an ugly little mushroom while ignoring the huge, scaly, fanged monster coming their way. She said she wanted people to stomp on the mushroom quickly or ignore it, because it’s just a freaking mushroom, already, and come help her slay the monster. That’s how I’m feeling about the ‘obesity epidemic’ vs food insecurity/EDs.

    Okay, you don’t like how fat people look. Fine. You don’t have to like looking at us. Look the other goddamn way. I don’t want to look at holier-than-thou any more than you want to look at fat. Meanwhile, children are DYING because they can’t get enough to eat and because you have taught them that food is poison. Look away from me all you want, but FUCKING FEED THE KIDS!

    1. Twistie, not to detract from Ragen’s awesome post, but this reply is so awesome as well that it should be a post in its own right.

  3. I shared part of your post in my foods class today. Trying to stir up some conversation. We’ve only got a couple weeks left and I wanted to have lively discussions.

    Wow… are my eyes opened. 1. only 5 kids out of 18 spoke up. Three of them seniors. 2 of them refused to accept that the ‘war on childhood obesity’ is causing any trauma or even any small issue with children in schools. They said that it is proven (her words, not mine) that fat leads to heart attacks. And kids SHOULD be taught how to eat properly. I kept pulling the discussion back to “all kids” not just fat kids. Several said that they don’t believe we are influenced by the media and that we can just ignore it. These students also said, people can be fat.. that isn’t the issue, but that they should eat healthy. And of course, they know someone who is obese because of how the family eats. I kept trying to pull them back to researched information and coorelative relationships vs. causitive. They got so angry with me for not accepting the ‘common spew’ that we transitioned into reading the chapter on Food and Health concerns. We are going to look at some REAL issues related to eating… food allergies, low sodium and low fat, as well as fresh/raw vs. processed foods. Nothing I am doing with this chapter is going to focus on weight loss. Obviously I won’t change their minds.

      1. I can only hope. However, I ended up creating a triggering situation for myself afterwards. Some of the most vocal girls (pretty one) was really hostile.. dripping venom in her tone. She didn’t cool down at all after the discussion ended. She was still grumping in the hallway to friends… and of course they all looked over at me…. damn, I hate this part of my job… I should be done with the ‘victimization’ thing, but mean girls can really trigger my panic.

        1. You did a courageous thing by speaking about this in your class. I’m really sorry you were triggered by the after effects from some of them. I hope that there were enough seeds of doubt planted to make some of the students reconsider how they look at food and fatness.

        2. I’m betting this mean girl was starving. It seems to me the women who are the most hostile towards us are the ones putting themselves through the most pain to stay thin. The idea that we can live normal, healthy, happy lives while fat just infuriates them because it negates their sense of entitlement and shows the emptiness of their pursuit.

  4. Dr. Pinhas is right. I went through puberty early, so you know what that means. After rude comments from my mom (bless her heart) I starved myself, which was bad considering I was a competitive swimmer who needed the carbs. Then of course when I lost weight, the adults started commenting on how good I looked and I felt insulted because they were the ones who made me feel ugly and unworthy. To top it off, I’ve been criticized for the motor skill limitations and circulation problems which make exercise difficult for me. I’m currently thin now, but that thing inside me never goes away. I’ll always have some distortion because of what happened when I was eleven. It’s funny that I never cared about others being large (I actually prefer having plus-sized partners) but I put the pressure on myself to be accepted. I hope more people listen to people like Dr. Pinhas, and not Mrs. Obama, who has no credentials to spout off on health. I actually voted for Romney (GASP) partially because of her playground bully act. I’d rather have Romney than an adult who bullies children in the White House.

  5. My husband teaches at a school for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. A few weeks ago he mentioned how many of the students at the school are “obese.” I was horrified that they weighed the children (he also knew BMI percentages), and he said they are trying to get a grant for a *salad bar* at school, and having percentages of overweight and obese children is a requirement.

    I was so mad. How about having the requirement for “earning” a salad bar be having students and staff who want to eat salads? Or just making a salad available because it is a fresh, healthy choice some kids might not have at home? But no! Instead it becomes a program of weighing and measuring kids who *all* have existing emotional and behavioral disorders. What a shameful disgrace!

    1. I am horrified that it takes a certain percentage of overweight/obese children to receive a grant for a salad bar. It’s disgraceful and discriminatory in so many ways. And so very, very sad.

    2. “and having percentages of overweight and obese children is a requirement.”

      This is possibly the most asinine thing I read all year. What sort of a requirement is that? So thin people don’t get to eat salads? And, pretending to buy into the “eat this and you’ll loose weight” mindset, how are they going to stay thin if they’re not given access to supposedly thin-making and thin-keeping foods? I think my brain just exploded.


    3. I would guess that many of these kids are taking meds which cause weight gain. If I remember correctly, Zyprexa is often given to children with behavioral problems, and among other things it causes diabetes. I can’t quite get my head around giving children drugs which cause them to gain weight, then labeling them as obese.

      1. Indeed.
        Probably half are on some form of medication. Some are on very powerful psychotropic meds.
        Additionally, many are in foster care.
        Many have a history of abuse. Some in their very recent past. 😦
        Really, this is the perfect group of kids (K-12) to see school as a sanctuary, a place of help and hope and love.

        And they are being weighed to earn a salad bar from the government. It is absolutely unconscionable.

  6. This brings so many bad memories to my mind. As a 7 year-old (30 years ago!), I was put on my first diet. It was called TWIGS. I no longer know what the acronym stands for, but I do know what it did to me. It made me a “fat kid”. I got teased and bullied forever on out about my size. I’ve suffered from an eating disorder (with periods of recovery) for at least 25 years. My niece is not “thin” and she is active, eats right, and is a beautiful young girl (she’s 5). The doctor already told my sister that my niece needs to loose weight! I have begged my sister to make my niece’s size a non-issue, and she has agreed with me. What we concentrate on is her being active, eating a nutritious diet, and enjoying life. As her aunt, I’ll never tell her that’s “she’s a very beautiful woman, if she could just lose that extra weight…” as my aunt told me. I love your blog and I love how it promotes health at any size. Thank you. That’s the example our children need, not some crap on HBO stigmatizing people of all ages who do not fit into some imaginary box.

    1. Bless you for standing up and teaching your sister about the pitfalls of that doctor’s words.
      But, having had a daughter who has cycled through thin/moderate/fat stages and finally finished up at 18 in a lovely size 14 body (Marilyn Monroe-esque), All my efforts at making size a non-issue fell flat. She still buys into the media hype.. she still tries to hate herself thin…sigh… I stand my ground and tell her I will cook healthy, satisfying meals and that if she is determined to do those things, I can’t be a party to it.

      I cry alot over it and pray for her.

      1. We can’t escape what the media tells us and our children about how we “should” be. I still struggle with my body image, even though I don’t want to. I try to “hate myself thin” a lot of the time, too. My goal is to achieve self-acceptance. Statistics from the CDC show that only 1 in 3 Americans have a BMI less than that considrered overweight. Your daughter is very lucky to have a supportive mom. But you are right to tell her that you can’t be part of her self-hatred cycle. The best you can do is continue to be a loving, supportive mother. My mom tried to some extent, but she couldn’t do any better than she did with the weight-loss industry chomping at her heels as well. Disordered eating is unfortunately passed on to the next generation. I’m sure that your daughter will fight with this until she somehow comes to see that her size does not determine her value. And to feel that way, she’d have to stop watching tv, stop reading magazines, and stop thinking that other people are the ones who determine our worth. How many men in my life have commented on my size? I can’t count them all, but it started with my brother and my dad. How many friends told me I needed to lose weight? I don’t even remember. How many tv shows, even the news, told me my weight made me a second-class person? An untold number. The truth is that I determine my value, and let me tell you, as a daughter, sister, niece, aunt, cousin and friend, I’m invaluable. As an RN who cares for critically and terminally ill children, I succeed in every way. My worth is more than any precious jewel or years of starving myself to be thin. I’ll pray for your daughter because I wish peace for her. The sooner she can find it, the sooner she can live the life she’s meant to live. Lead by example, mom. If she sees you have body acceptance, it’s far easier for her to learn it as well. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    1. This. I may be extreme in this viewpoint, but I think the narcissistic, vapid twits in the White House, the media, and judgmental adults who pick on innocent children are evil and there is a place in hell for them.

  7. I love this blog and have made posts, sometimes I don’t see them, but I love this blog. One of my favorites. But this is sad. It’s almost defeating when discovering things like this. It seems like it’s a never ending attack on larger people, young and old. My niece is 5 and I will admit her mom lets her have happy meals, pizza, cookies and sweets from time to time. But when she was younger we introduced her to fruits, veggie dips, and she loves salad. All of that has stuck with her and she still eats it like she just discovered it for the first time. And guess what? My niece is two pounds underweight for a 5 year old. After letting her have her cake and eat it too (pun intended) we’ve never forced her into strict eating and dietary habits like we’re doing children this day and age, which imo is a form of abuse, and look what the results are. We never made her weight a subject in our household, even if she were overweight or obese we still wouldn’t make her weight an issue because that’s not anyone’s business to focus on a child’s weight. I mentioned my nephew’s pediatrician telling his mom that he needs to lose weight, he’s barely 8 months now he was barely 5 months when it was said. Forcing children into almost compulsive behavior like this, making them scared about their weight is really going to be damaging to their psyche. Instead of having a free fun filled life they’re going to spend the rest of their lives worrying about their weight and having a unhealthy relationship with food developing extreme eating disorders and body image issues. And this is okay to introduce children to this kind of abuse? I thought we cared for our children?

  8. I agree that this show will do more harm than good. I also agree that health programs at schools can also lead to more problems and bullying. But I don’t think there is a problem with bringing in healthier food in schools. I am not saying get rid of cookies but kids deserve to eat healthy food not over processed stuff that barely qualifies as food.

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