The University of Texas at Austin
  • Battling Childhood Obesity Needs a Softer Approach

    By Robert Crosnoe, Professor of Sociology
    Published: April 14, 2014

    We need a softer touch when addressing the “obesity epidemic” among children and teens in the U.S., one focusing on gaining some “good” rather than eliminating something “bad.”

    Efforts by the government, doctors, parents and high-profile advocates like Michelle Obama to reduce child/adolescent obesity have legitimate motivations; for example, concerns about its long-term health complications, like diabetes and heart disease, and their associated health care costs. Yet, even a well-intentioned focus on how problematic obesity is can be counterproductive, not because its risks are imaginary but because how all of the talk about these risks is perceived by obese youth. A better strategy is to frame our efforts as promoting wellness rather than fighting obesity.

    Our message should be about wellness for all kids, not singling out and changing obese kids. Promoting exercise, nutrition and health maintenance should be the stated goals. To the extent that we can get more young people on the road to general wellness, we will likely see fewer obese youth. Even those youth who remain overweight will likely become healthier, which is the whole point of reducing obesity in the first place.

    I came to this realization when my research on the social challenges of high school received ample media attention. Some vivid examples of this research involved obese teenagers, and many of them — plus adults who used to be obese teenagers — reached out to castigate me for denigrating them or to thank me for validating their experiences. One theme of their feedback was that the constant public discussion of obesity as a problem is taken very personally by people who are obese or just think that they are. They see it as a commentary about their own worth. Rather than being motivating, it makes them feel lousy, which might actually keep them from losing weight while also leading to other problems.

    Social scientists like Kelly Brownell, Janet Latner, and Deborah Carr, have documented how the harsh judgment of obesity endures despite — or because of? — so many more people being overweight. Americans tend to view obesity pejoratively, equating it with personal failure. Consequently, obese youth are often bullied or isolated, and they have problems with depression and self-esteem.  For many, such experiences are the worst part of being obese. Poignantly, thin people who used to be overweight may continue to see themselves through the same lens of devaluation, so that the mental state of obesity lingers even when the physical state disappears. This phenomenon is so common, in fact, that it even has a name: phantom fat.

    Now consider our public agenda on obesity, with its prevailing message that obesity is a threat to society that needs to be vanquished, recently typified by an Epcot exhibit put on by Disney and Blue Cross Blue Shield that had thin heroes like Will Power fighting heavy villains like Lead Bottom. Scare tactics sometimes work, if, for example, a shaken teenager takes the public health information seriously and loses weight. The downside, though, is the psychological costs or the possibility that some teenagers will tune it out as “hater” talk. Another possibility is that obese teens might feel under attack and actually gain weight, given that eating is one way that people of all sizes cope with distress. Furthermore, getting the motivation to go to the gym is hard enough, never mind if one is demoralized by fat talk.

    Our First Lady stressing physical activity, eating right and proposing to eliminate junk food adverting in schools is more what I am talking about than her pledge to reduce obesity per se. As one example, my research suggests that one effective way for overweight teenagers to avoid some of the social and psychological complications of obesity is to get involved in extracurricular activities, including sports — a venue in which they can connect with others, feel accomplished, and, hey, maybe lose weight too. Dollars dedicated to restoring school sports, therefore, will have more of an impact than fat-shaming ad campaigns.

    Dr. Robert Crosnoe is professor of sociology and a research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of the Texas at Austin. He studies how youth development, health and education are connected to each other over time and how these connections factor into inequalities in American society.

    • Quote 2
      Al Maxey said on April 30, 2014 at 2:00 p.m.
      You had me until the last sentence. Sorry, I was an obese kid in school. Sports were available but only for the fit kids. Even if I could muster the courage to try out for the team, it would only sign me up for more ridicule, more inadequacy, and other humiliation at the hands of my teammates, our opponents, and spectators (supposing I actually made the team, they found the adult or oversized jersey for me to wear, and God help me if they put me on the field where I couldn't possibly run fast enough). No thanks on the sports. That doesn't help obese kids - it might, however, help prevent kids from becoming obese.
    • Quote 2
      cloud computing xero said on April 23, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.
      Can you tell us more about this? I'd want to find out more details.
    • Quote 2
      Thelma King Thiel, RN, BA said on April 4, 2014 at 1:02 p.m.
      I agree with Dr. Crosnoe that a softer, not threatening approach is needed to encourage children to adopt healthier food and lifestyle choices. Children learn health habits at an early age; however, how can they make informed choices about avoiding liver damaging activities when our school system has failed to teach them about the important role the liver plays in their ability to talk, walk and play. . an stay healthy. Forty four years ago following the loss of my 4 year old son, Dean, to a rare and fatal liver disease, I set about to educate legislators, teachers, healthcare providers and anyone who would listen about their internal power plant and its zillions of employees -- liver cells. When asked by a student "How do you get an apple into your muscles?" I provided a simple, memorable answer that most Americans are unaware of. When you eat an apple it goes down to you stomach where it is converted into applesauce. The little blood vessels in your intestinal tract carry the applesauce over to your liver where the liver cells, like Santa's helpers, turn it into muscles and bones so you can walk and play, clotting factors so you don't bleed to death from a small cut. They make immune factors to keep you from being a siting duck for every germ going around and help you get well when you are sick and hundred of other life sustaining body functions that keep yo alive and healthy 24/7. However, if you take drugs or alcohol, the same things happens. It goes down to you stomach..over to your liver and it kills those Santa's helpers until you don't have enough workers in your factory to do the job and you are out of business. Most people don't know why they eat 3 meals a day. They are feeding their engine that converts the food they eat into hundreds of life sustaining body functions. Too much fat in the diet causes fats to infiltrate liver cells. create little sacs in side them that eventually kills those liver cells called Cirrhosis -- How many people really know what cirrhosis is or how it occurs. Let's provide our children with information they can relate to in their daily lives and motivate them to take responsibility for protecting their silent partner. . .their liver. I'd love to share more of our commonsensical communication techniques with you to motivate children and adults to avoid liver damaging behaviors. Let's prevent fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, substance abuse,diabetes and even cardiovascular disease and liver related and preventable. I have earned the nom de plume The Liver Lady. Let's work together to lay the foundation for a healthier nation, one liver at a time. Thelma King Thiel, Chair - Hepatitis Foundation International 301-625 9076
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