Junkfood Science: Hunting down fat kids

May 22, 2007

Hunting down fat kids

The worldwide news over recent days leaves the impression that fat children have become prey and that there’s not a safe corner in the world for them. The anti-childhood obesity initiatives — none of which have any evidence to support them — run from ridiculous to potentially dangerous. In Scotland, the news headlined:

‘Fat police’ dish out help to obese children

OVERWEIGHT schoolchildren are being targeted by “fat inspectors" for a controversial programme of healthy-eating lessons and keep-fit sessions with their families. The unprecedented Active Families scheme involves health and education professionals singling out obese children as young as five and offering them and their parents a course of cooking lessons, nutritional advice and exercise routines....

But critics have expressed concern that the scheme risks crossing the line between well-targeted assistance and heavy-handed state intervention....

Each child was issued with a personal activity programme to encourage one hour of exercise each day, including walking to school, walking the dog or after-school clubs, instead of watching television or playing computer games....

The Scotsma reported on a range of drastic measures that have been proposed to tackle obesity in children:

Aborigines will teach 10 severely overweight British youngsters how to survive on bush tucker in a new BBC reality television series, Fat Teens Can't Hunt. Participants will have to eat lizards, giant mangrove worms and roasted kangaroo tails. If they fail to find food in the wild, they will go hungry. Last month four gyms designed for overweight youngsters opened in and around Bolton. The owners claimed that fat youngsters were often too frightened of being ridiculed to attend mainstream gyms. Ketchup was banned in hundreds of English schools because of its salt content. In Scotland, efforts have been made to ban fast food vans from near schools. And the British Medical Association has called for a ban on unhealthy snacks that are targeted at children

While another story from researchers at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, UK, voiced objections to the latest government initiatives to monitor the weight and height of all primary school children there:

Loughborough Researchers Urge Government To Rethink Childhood Obesity Strategy

...Supporters say the tests, which measure the height and weight of each child to calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI) will help to increase parental awareness of obesity, while opponents claim the initiative could lead to overweight children being misinformed about their health. The Loughborough researchers Professor John Evans and Dr Emma Rich from the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences agree the potentially damaging effect on the children themselves could outweigh the benefits. “Even the Government's own ‘Expert Advisory Group' states ‘screening for childhood obesity could not guarantee to do more good than harm' and advised that 'a screening programme was not appropriate'. “But, ignoring the lessons of yesteryear, as well as the advice of its own advisory groups, Government is pressing ahead with the initiative."

The researchers have also expressed concerns about the value of the BMI as a measuring tool as research suggests it is too imprecise and not a method that should be used on its own to make judgements about a person's ‘health'. “Body Mass Index is not the bearer of incontrovertible ‘facts' about 'health', particularly children's," added Professor Evans....

The Loughborough researchers' opinions stem from the Government's pilot programmes conducted in Birmingham, Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Hull and their own research into the experiences at school of girls and young women suffering from eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Their findings revealed that many sufferers strongly believe that their excessive exercising and dieting was nurtured and sanctioned, albeit inadvertently by the well-meaning actions of teachers and health experts in schools. “Researchers are now regularly reporting that young people, especially young women, are increasingly feeling deeply disaffected with their body shape and size, added Professor Evans.

In Australia, it appears the government is funding a diet book for children, but not without controversy. According to the Daily Telegraph:

Fat-kid strategy ridiculed

A GOVERNMENT-funded food bible created for children by CSIRO scientists is causing controversy among nutrition experts. A children's version of the popular The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet is a $2 million, two-year project designed to challenge the childhood obesity crisis....

Labor's opposition health spokeswomen Nicola Roxon said she was worried about the Government plan to create a diet book for children. “I think we need to be very careful about the messages we are sending to both children and parents," she said. Australasian Society for Obesity's Professor Boyd Swinburne said no child, regardless of their weight, should be put on a “weight-loss diet" and queried the amount of money being sunk into the project....

And Canada is training community volunteers for a new project taking on childhood obesity. The volunteers will target families especially with children:

Volunteers against obesity

The volunteers will be trained to become advocates in the community for physical activity. Hanover Recreation Programs Manager Sherri Walden says the focus will be on families especially children. She says the volunteers will serve as spokespersons motivating residents and youth to make healthier lifestyle choices by providing them with information about physical activity and its benefits. The volunteers will also coordinate community events to promote physical activity....

Of course, Americans school kids are also being targeted in the obesity wars, according to the Wall Street Journal. It reported:

Schools taking new steps in obesity wars

Brittany Burns, 12 years old [in Gillette, WY], has always been on the heavy side. Last year in fifth grade, neighborhood kids started picking on her at the bus stop, calling her “fatty" and “chubby wubby." Then someone else piled on: Brittany's school. In a letter dated Oct. 2, 2006, the Campbell County School District No. 1 invited “select students" to take part in a fitness and nutrition program set up for some of the district's most overweight kids. At 5 feet 2 inches tall and 179 pounds, Brittany qualified.

Receiving the letter was “embarrassing," Brittany says. Her mother, Mindi Story, a clerk at an Albertsons supermarket, says she seethed “pure anger" because, she argues, her daughter's weight shouldn't be the school's concern: “I send her to school to learn math and reading."

Spurred by a local doctor and an enthusiastic school board, Gillette has banned soda and second helpings on hot meals. This year, it included students' body-mass index -- a number that measures weight adjusted for height -- on report cards, and started recommending students like Brittany for after-school fitness programs.

The Journal went on to describe similar child weight campaigns in school districts across the country to tackle childhood obesity, adding:

Many health experts approve, given how much time children spend at school. Schools create “social norms," says Marlene Schwartz, Director of Research and School Programs at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “The school is the perfect place to both teach things intellectually, but also create an environment where those lessons are reinforced."

Not everyone is as enamored of these initiatives as obesity special interest organizations. There’s a backlash brewing against these “wellness” programs among parents, children, teachers and school officials, said the Journal. The programs are criticized for being “too extreme and demonizing children.” They go beyond measuring children’s BMI, singling fat children out for fitness and nutrition intervention, and removing vending machines from schools, including the teachers’ lounges.

“Everything the Healthy Schools Task Force has done has been controversial," [Rosey Barbour] says.... The task force decided students would no longer receive second-helpings of lunch entrees (they could have unlimited helpings of fresh fruits, vegetables and salad). It told lunch servers to give smaller portions to younger students. Concession-stand vendors received a list of recommended alternatives, such as fresh fruit and string cheese. School principals were pushed to dump bake sales in favor of car washes, talent shows and walkathons.

The task force also deployed financial incentives. Elementary schools that added physical activity received extra funding for instructors and after-school health programs. Based on the assumption that children emulate adults around them, the district in February began awarding bonuses to faculty who opted to receive a fitness assessment, which measured metrics such as blood pressure and bicep strength. The better the fitness score, the higher the bonus — as much as $160 if they take the test twice a year and get high marks.

Toward the end of 2004, parents started complaining at task-force meetings that their children were coming home hungry....Sue Harter, the district's director of food service, says the strictures are becoming overly specific. Snacks sold during the school day can contain no more than seven grams of fat, no more than two grams of saturated fat, and no more than 15 grams of sugar, with a few exceptions....

The Journal mentioned families who believed the assessments and classes were helping their kids, but readers won’t miss that the effects on the children precisely demonstrate the concerns of the Loughborough researchers, exposing every weakness felt in children and leaving them feeling increasingly inadequate:

Ryan, for example, was always bigger than his peers in his class, but seemed unaware of it until recently. “I noticed him saying, ‘This shirt makes my belly look big' while getting dressed," says his mother, Jaime. “We realized he needs to lose weight."

These are the closest things to describe what children and knowledgeable child advocates must be feeling the world has come to at this point: one, two.

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