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Should we be concerned about anti-obesity education in schools?

Posted in: Weight Loss 09 Mar, 2012

There is no shortage of controversy surrounding obesity. Though it is a recognised fact that obesity rates have increased dramatically over the last several decades, it is still difficult to talk about how to tackle this problem without causing offence. When governments or health bodies attempt to intervene, proposing legislative changes that would see the introduction of a tax on fatty foods, for example, they are often accused of acting like a nanny state by those who believe that people should have the autonomy to make their own decisions regarding what is healthy for them and their families.

While in theory this is of course true, there is no denying the increasing problem of obesity in many parts of the world, particularly the UK. This is not just a cosmetic issue. Associated complications arising from obesity, such as coronary heart disease, place a huge financial burden on the NHS (estimates suggest £4.2 billion per year), with estimates suggesting that this cost will continue to climb rapidly unless things change. One of the central concerns amongst health bodies is the rising levels of childhood obesity, which now affects one in 10 children.

If attempting to tackle the problem of obesity in adults is difficult, approaching the issue in relation to children is almost impossible. Perhaps understandably, most parents do not appreciate the involvement of outside bodies when it comes to how they raise their children. Campaigns to increase education in healthy lifestyles aimed at young people, however well-intentioned, can receive negative press. A recent study from the United States is an unfortunate example of this, as it appears to demonstrate that anti-obesity education in schools has a link to eating disorders.

Researchers spoke to a number of parents whose children had received so-called “anti-obesity education” and reported that parents were concerned about particular “worrisome behaviours” relating to food and physical activity that their children demonstrated following the obesity prevention program. At first glance, this does indeed seem worrying, particularly when the first paragraph of the write-up of the study suggests there is a link to eating disorders.

However, on closer inspection, fears of such a link appear to be unfounded. In fact, the so-called “worrisome behaviours” may not be so worrying after all. Such behaviours that parents listed as cause for concern were “too much physical activity” and “refusing family meals (wants different food)”. The report neglects to explain what constitutes “too much” in terms of physical activity, and neither does it mention exactly what family meal was “refused”. It may be that what this report actually shows is a disconnect between what is actually healthy and what is considered normal. To me, the study simply shows that children who received the obesity prevention education listened to the recommendations regarding staying active and eating healthily and tried to implement them when they came home. Surely this means the programme was a success, not a cause for concern?

Obesity prevention programmes should be encouraged, promoted and praised for what they achieve, not used as the basis for unhelpful and arguably misleading articles which just add fuel to an already well-stoked fire.

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