A couple of days ago a friend of mine handed me this week's Wall Street Journal with a front page article about a town that may be taking the fight against childhood obesity too far. The school board in Gillette, Wyoming decided to put kids BMI (body mass index), an indicator of obesity, on their report cards. Although the intentions of the school board officials was to help overweight kids, many parents question if this is the right approach and some are steaming mad.
What's the best approach to helping childhood obesity?
Personally, I think this is not the way to go. First, BMI is not a great measure of the need to lose weight – even though many pediatricians rely on it. It is a measure of your weight relative to your height. But everyone is genetically different and has a different healthy set-point for their weight. The only thing that BMI shows you is where you are in relation to others. It is a valid indicator for many folks, but not all. In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger's BMI places him in the obese category – does he have a weight problem – not likely.
Second, embarrassing kids into losing weight is not really a psychologically healthy approach. School kids are mean enough. Overweight kids get enough harassment from their peers on the playground, without the need for further harassment from the administration. The fact that schools are starting to point fingers is ironic, since school lunches have been a major part of the problem for the last couple of decades.
Childhood obesity is a significant problem. But our society is as much, or perhaps more to blame than the individuals. Education about what it takes to stay healthy is lacking behind the social trends that make us fat. Nutrition education in our kids’ classrooms is really just getting started.
We're not designed to waste food energy
Unfortunately, nature designed us to gain weight in times of plenty. We spent most of our thousands of years adapting to lean times. Now our bodies err on the side of over-storage of fat instead of under-storage because, biologically, we anticipate lean times ahead. This requires particular diligence on our part to avoid gaining weight, but we are only just beginning to understand many of the pitfalls of modern times.
Think about it. It seems ridiculous now, but we didn't even know that smoking was bad for us a few decades ago. Many of today's foods are where cigarettes were in the 1950's – of unknown consequences.
With that said, it is still our responsibility, as parents, to recognize when our kids need some kind of intervention. A recent Canadian study found that about 1 out of 4 kids are overweight but only about 1 out of 12 parents recognize their kids as too heavy. This means that 2 out of 3 parents of overweight kids don't recognize the problem. The longer the problem persists, the more difficult it will be to reverse it later. Some kids will have a much more difficult time than others to combat their weight problems. Genetics and life history both influence how healthy lifestyles will contribute to weight loss. This does not mean that it is hopeless if you or your kids have a hard time controlling body weight. Remember, weight is only an indicator of health and should not be completely equated with health. Some folks can be reasonably healthy even though they seem overweight.
At the same time, don't take that last sentence as an excuse to do nothing. Getting your kids to eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise will improve their health, even if they don't show it by shedding pounds. We can only do our best to optimize our own health based on the genetic cards we were dealt.
Prevention must be our focus
Do you agree with Gillette's decision to put BMIs on report cards? In my opinion, we need to become a society focused on solutions – not problems. We need to educate and encourage, not ridicule and blame. Is Gillette's BMI reporting having the desired effect? Time will tell.
Health is a major issue for everyone because the cost of sickness is a huge strain on our economy and is only getting worse. Major companies are dropping health care coverage because they can no longer afford it. Our only option is to put more effort into prevention. I'm not talking about the definition of prevention that pharmaceutical ads are feeding you – taking drugs to hide symptoms. True prevention is making daily decisions that reduce your chances of getting sick in the first place.
The presidential debates are coming. Last round most candidates spent a lot of time figuring out how to pay for more health care – this time I hope we see a focus on reducing the need for more health care. The healthier we get, the less service we have to pay for. That might not be the solution that the companies funding political campaign want to see – but it is the only long-term option.
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