To much fanfare, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the national Let’s Move! campaign in February 2010, planting a government-sanctioned spotlight on kids’ nutrition and unleashing a blitzkrieg of initiatives aimed at tackling childhood obesity, taking its lunch money and rubbing its face in the mud out by the swing set.
A touch more eloquently, the Let’s Move! website describes the program as having “an ambitious national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.”
With one-third of Americans ages 2 to 19 classified as obese, the mission of Let’s Move! and other kids’ health crusades is an estimable (if conspicuously lofty) one.
But simultaneous with the mainstream touting of “childhood obesity” as a veritable national crisis — an “epidemic” that merits mentioning in any and every news article about health or food in the United States — a significant number of American children are developing eating disorders, and this fact, no matter how much less face time it gets on the evening news, is equally as troubling.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in January, David S. Rosen, professor of internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said the U.S. government published data in 2009 showing individuals under the age of 12 were the fastest-growing population of patients being hospitalized for eating disorders.
“Many of us believe that the focus on obesity prevention, especially with young children, has had the unintended consequence of increasing eating disorders in susceptible individuals,” Rosen said. “Some younger kids handle the nutrition messages in ways that are too rigid, inflexible, and that get them into trouble.”
While outright anorexia and bulimia may be relatively uncommon, Rosen said many people who have eating disorders don’t have symptoms that meet the strict criteria necessary for one of those clinical diagnoses, but their conditions (known as “subthreshold” eating disorders) are nonetheless serious and potentially life threatening.
“We should start to be concerned when children express weight concerns, when they talk about or start diets, or if their activity level suddenly rises outside of usual recreational or athletic activities,” Rosen said.
But through the lens of Let’s Move!, wouldn’t what Rosen describes be acceptable — even encouraged — behavior?
Something is wrong here. We must find a way to convey the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle to kids without creating a confusing panic around the body like we currently are — pushing a rigid, polarizing, one-size-fits-all prescription for health that is to some extent founded on hyped nutritional myths and misinformation.
We must be mindful, too, not to deem that the “cure” to childhood obesity is simply to eat less and sign up for indoor soccer. Children who are obese are rarely so just because they eat too much, and obesity’s link to inactivity isn’t as substantiated as it has been portrayed. In come factors such as family income, location, class, genetics — complex variables that don’t so easily fit within the equation Let’s Move! and society in general seems to be trusting to solve “the challenge of childhood obesity.”
Clinical psychologist Edward Abramson suggests a possible solution to the conundrum may be to disregard weight loss as a goal when it comes to talking with children about health and nutrition, and to instead just encourage healthy eating and enjoyable physical activity sans mention of calories or pounds. “The concern about juvenile obesity is thoroughly justified,” Abramson writes. “But unless approached with sensitivity, well-intentioned interventions can have negative consequences.”