Junkfood Science: The faces of child obesity

May 08, 2009

The faces of child obesity

Australian parents are realizing that they’ve been deluded about an epidemic of childhood obesity. Lesson One — Never forget to ask the most important question of any health statistic: How is it being defined?

It’s easy to lie with statistics, graphs and scary marketing, and even to get people to believe the opposite of reality, such as in an epidemic of obese, unhealthy and sedentary children. As alarming claims are repeated and the most extreme examples are depicted as representative of the crisis, few people stop to question how a statistic is being defined.

With today’s new definition of “overweight” (children ≥95th percentile on new BMI growth curves, also called “obese” depending on the author), a mere 5 pounds makes the difference between a first grader being labeled as “normal” or “obese.” Even doctors are unable to recognize the children who meet the definition and few people understand what most “obese” and “overweight” children really look like. If they did, of course, they’d realize how incredible the claims of a crisis really are.

In The Australian, Richard Guilliat profiled a perfectly healthy, typical “cherubic first grader” who had been subjected to a government health check in school, where her BMI had been assessed. Her parents had been notified by the health department that she was overweight and suggested the family come to the local health centre to have their family’s eating habits and physical activities analyzed and participate in a “Talk about Weight” group session.

As Guilliat explains, parents who recognize that their own children don’t match the depictions of childhood obesity, or the “fat and unhealthy” labels being placed on them by health officials, are increasingly questioning the obesity “epidemic” being “touted as the greatest health crisis facing the western world.” For years, we’ve heard the dire warnings. “Our children are said to be a generation of bloated couch-potatoes destined for a life of clogged arteries and diabetes,” he wrote. “Obesity could rival smoking and the Black Death as a killer, according to high-profile overseas experts.”

Although the sound scientific evidence fails to support the scares, so do parents’ own eyes. These parents have begun to think critically and question the hype of an epidemic. They’ve taken the first step. Next, they have to examine what they’ve been led to believe about what healthy children look like, the deadliness of fat and the natural variation of sizes among children.

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