Junkfood Science: The real tragedy

July 22, 2007

The real tragedy

Eating disorder experts are increasingly recognizing that the panic about child "obesity" is having a dangerous effect on young people. Dr. Jenny O’Dea, of the University of Sydney and internationally-recognized eating disorder researcher, reported on her research finding that the rate of disordered eating among teenage girls has doubled just since 2000.

The Australian news reported "20 percent of girls [are] starving, vomiting to control weight:"

A national survey of almost 9,000 children has shown ... one in five teenage girls starve themselves for two-day stretches or vomit their food to control their weight. The survey also showed 8 percent of girls use smoking for weight control.

Dr. O'Dea says these methods of weight control are dangerous. “The use of starvation, vomiting and laxative abuse in girls is not only useless - they don't lose fat, they lose fluid - but it's very dangerous, it can result in sudden heart attack for example," she said....

Dr. O'Dea says teenage girls are being influenced by media reports about obesity.... “There's been a moral panic about obesity and I think the teenage girls are picking up on that, girls from all different social class levels."...

The study, Youth Cultures of Eating, was funded by the Australian Research Council. Interviewing 8,950 children and adolescents, ages 12 to 18, Dr. O’Dea found that teenagers’ fears of being fat were driving their eating disordered behavior and contributing to the dramatic increase in the numbers who were “starving themselves, vomiting, abusing laxatives and smoking in an effort to shed weight.” Ten percent of teen girls also drank no milk at all, attempting to control their weight, putting them in danger of calcium deficiencies, she said. As the Sydney Morning Herald added:

Teens’ fear of fat fuels eating disorders

...Youth Cultures of Eating showed 18 percent of girls surveyed in 2006 had starved themselves for at least two days, up from 9.9 percent in 2000. The study, funded by the Australian Research Council, also showed 11 percent used vomiting for weight loss, up from 3.4 per cent. Eight percent smoked to suppress appetite, up from 2.4 per cent.

The report noted that obesity declined among wealthy teenage girls, from 4.6 percent in 2000 to 3.9 percent in 2006. The number of obese children, boys and girls, was “levelling off," Dr O'Dea said, with a rise from 5.1 percent in 2000 to 6.4 percent in 2006.

She said the heavy focus on childhood obesity and media attention on “skinny celebrities" such as Paris Hilton were to blame for the increase in eating-disordered behaviour. “I think there has been undoubtedly a media panic and a moral panic about childhood obesity in the last six years and I would certainly suggest that some of that comment has got into the minds of teenage girls.... What schools need to do is tread very, very carefully with obesity prevention and only give positive messages and never do anything that is critical and negative." ...

This tragic story and one behind it continue to be ignored by the media. Not surprisingly. There are immense interests that need an epidemic of childhood obesity to sell anti-obesity initiatives; healthy eating and wellness programs; school exercise and BMI surveillance mandates; clinical management of fat children, including testing, medication and surgery; hundreds of millions of dollars for research; community zoning and design legislation; and regulations from what children can watch on television to what they can play and, most of all, what they can eat. It goes beyond the fact that there is little evidence that any of these initiatives are founded on good science or are effective, or that being a fat child leads to greater health problems as an adult.

“Levelling off”

Years before the marketing of an “obesity epidemic” went into overdrive, the facts — from here in the United States to the UK — were already showing no significant changes in rates of overweight or obesity among children (or adults).

But for most consumers, this inconvenient data has remained virtually invisible.

Instead, if it’s on television, it must be true. The obesity “epidemic” issue shows the power of media to convince people to believe and fear things that aren’t factual. Show enough images of headless fat children and repeat frightening and outrageous claims of a crisis often enough, and it becomes real in our minds. Even medical professionals can be taken in, rather than turn to the documentation in the medical literature.

Remember when Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona made the “year of the healthy child” his office’s 2005 agenda? The Dept. of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health went into high gear and made childhood obesity a high priority, saying this “public health crisis” was putting children at risk for chronic diseases. That year, alone, about $440 million was spent on research and more obesity legislation was enacted than ever before.

The kicker was that they already knew that claims of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates weren’t accurate. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data had been published in a June 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. There had been no significant increases in the numbers of U.S. adults or children considered “overweight” or “obese” since 1999-2000, according to the CDC analysis. [It was spun into bad news, saying there were so signs the obesity crisis was decreasing.]

The story was the same in the UK. The Social Issues Research Council, an independent research group there, analyzed data from the Health Survey for England in 2003 and reported there was no evidence of any deterioration in the health status of children and that “there have been no significant changes in the average weights of children for nearly a decade.” The “claims of obesity ‘epidemic’ are not supported by evidence,” they found. Instead it was “hype and exaggeration” of the data.

The war on childhood obesity that’s been fought for years has been built upon a lot of overstated scares, statistics and unwarranted panic. While everyone’s attention is focused on inflated “obesity-related” chronic diseases in children, the deadliest one of all has been allowed to escalate.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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