As I was driving home from work a couple of months ago, I turned on the radio and caught the end of a story about Michelle Obama. She had given a speech that included her intention to launch a campaign to prevent childhood obesity, using a quote that suggested this generation of children would live shorter lives than their parents.
Immediately, I went into high alert and promised myself that I would at least write a letter explaining my point of view and my expertise in this area. But the holidays, family, and all of the other daily demands that can interfere with the best of intentions distracted me. When President Obama announced his wife’s initiative during the State of the Union address, I felt more saddened than surprised by what lays ahead.
I have the greatest respect for Mrs. Obama and have no doubt that she passionately believes in her mission. I think that her focus on weight and weight loss only goes to show how our culture normalizes the beliefs that you must be thin to be healthy, and that through changes in eating patterns - usually in the form of dieting - everyone can achieve a smaller body size. If this is what you believe, then a campaign that focuses on childhood obesity makes sense.
What I would give to meet Michelle at a local Starbucks for a cup of coffee and conversation! As I have with so many friends and colleagues, who also held similar views, I’d talk with her about what I’ve learned in my work with clients over the years, and how the science now supports these ideas.
I’d tell Michelle how wonderful it’s been to see her growing vegetables at the White House with children who can now appreciate the beauty of nature and the taste of fresh foods. I’d agree that making fruits and vegetables accessible and affordable for all children is a goal that would improve the quality of our children’s health. I’d applaud efforts to make physical education available on a daily basis – for children of all sizes – in our schools. I’d encourage her to figure out ways for organizations to support families so that all children have access to all kinds of activities, rather than spending hours in front of the TV (although sometimes, just chilling out in front of the TV after a demanding day at school is the perfect activity – just ask my children!)
Then I’d ask Michelle to take weight out of the equation. After all, good health is much broader than a number on the scale. I’d point out to her that there are thin children who are unhealthy, and ask if she is aware of girls who purge or use dangerous diet products to keep their weight low. I’d ask her if she knows that there are children who fall in the higher BMI categories that eat fruits and vegetables every day, are physically active, and come from a family where their genetic inheritance means a larger body size.
I’d also have to respectfully wonder if she’s familiar with the multitude of studies that challenge the notion of thin as most healthy. Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control released her findings in 2005 that showed no difference in death rates for people in the overweight and lower end of the obesity categories. In fact, she concluded that only people at either extreme – very large or very thin – had increased risk, with those who are the thinnest carrying the most risk. Two other long-term studies came out this past year – one from Canada and one from Japan – that also confirmed people in the “overweight” category of BMI actually live the longest lives.
I'd hope I'm not boring her with research and statistcs, but then I'd remind myself of the value Barack Obama places on science. I'd describe a huge study by Steven Blair, who was with the Cooper Institute at the time, that found obese-fit men have half the death rate of thin-unfit men, suggesting again weight is not the key factor when it comes to health. I'd point out that plenty of research shows yo-yo dieting, in which people repeatedly lose weight and regain the pounds, actually leads to health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
By now it might be time to refill our coffee, but if I could keep the First Lady’s attention for a little longer, I’d like to raise her awareness about the discrimination faced by children who are fat. Kids get bullied all the time, and body size is a frequent target. I'd ask her to imagine the experience of a large child when there’s a campaign to support obesity prevention at the highest level – by none other than her - a warm, kind and loving mother! I'd ask her if she understands the implications of her message: if obesity is “bad,” - and you are large - then you are not okay. I'd implore her to think about what that does to the self-esteem of our children, which I know she cares about very much. I'd like Michelle to know that even though I don't believe this is her intention, the campaign affects all children because the covert message is that if you're not already fat, you'd better do everything in your power not to gain weight - or else you will no longer be acceptable.
Now that we’ve (hopefully) established a connection, I’d like to get a little more personal in my conversation with Michelle. I want to broach the topic of her daughters, and how they will grow up to feel in their own bodies. I’d explain to her that it’s wonderful she viewed her daughter’s body size as “perfect,” and that her doctor was wrong to focus on their weight.
I'd suggest that the best way to raise healthy daughters is to help them stay connected to their hunger and fullness, provide them with a wide variety of food, and tell them to follow their dreams! I’d explain how focusing on food restrictions creates deprivation and frequently leads to the very weight gain she is trying to prevent. I'd share with her how I’ve worked with so many women over the years who felt great shame about their bodies - often triggered by a negative comment made about their body by someone who loved them - leading to a lifelong struggle with food and weight.
Which would lead me to a touchy subject. Speaking mother to mother, and wife to wife, I'd wonder if she might have a long talk with her husband who reportedly referred to their older daughter as "chubby." I have no doubt that if he understood that gaining weight is a natural part of female development and that the power of his statement - which is now public - can have a devastating effect on his daughter(s), he'd rethink how he talks about the wonder of their beautiful, developing bodies. I'd encourage them - as a couple - to stand by their commitment to diversity, and publicly acknowledge that this value extends not only to racial, ethnic and religious diversity, but to size diversity as well.
I'd suggest to Michelle that we all have a lens through which we view information, and I understand that she - with full support from the President - truly believes that this campaign will improve the lives of our children. So before we end our conversation, there's just a couple of more things I'd need to share.
Michelle, remember your statement that this generation of children will live shorter lives than their parents? I think you were referring to the quote by S. Jay Olansky, Ph.D. stating, "The current generation of children is the first generation in modern American history projected to have shorter life span than their parents."
I knew I had heard some challenge to that, so I sent a message to a list serve I'm on, and I want to share with you these responses:
Dr. Linda Bacon told me that she writes in her book, Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, "This proclamation was drawn from an opinion piece published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and offered no statistical evidence to support its claim, though you would never know it from the authority it has been granted in the media. Consider this before you buy into the hype: Life expectancy has increased dramatically during the same time period in which our weight rose (from 70.8 years in 1970 to 77.8 years in 2005) and continues to hit record highs."
And then a couple of days later, Dr. Jon Robison, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University posted, "Also, when Olshansky was questioned about the validity of these predictions in an article in Scientific American entitled Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic (June 2005) he replied, 'These are just back of the envelope, plausible scenarios. We never meant for them to be portrayed as precise.' And yet they published them in one of the major medical journal in the world - and the Journal permitted it."
I'd sincerely hope that this information would make Michelle reflect on what she's putting out in the world - and how to truly make the world a better place. I'd give her a wonderful resource from the Academy for Eating Disorders, an international, professional organization, that offers guidelines to promote the health and well-being of all children.
Finally, I'd leave Michelle with an article that appeared on February 1, 2010 in the Huffington Post by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh.
It is so moving that I am going to print it here:
"In the eating disorders world, putting any child on a diet is not only unacceptable but appalling.
In the eating disorders world, a father referring to his child as "chubby" and commenting on her eating habits is not only frowned upon it is reviled.
In the eating disorders world a mother who felt her children were "perfect" should not be corrected by a doctor who points to the children's weight as altering that.
In the eating disorders world it is well-known and embraced that healthy children rapidly gain weight as they approach puberty.
In the eating disorders world it is understood that dieting is an unhealthy behavior, that healthy weight is whatever one's body ends up with when they are behaviorally and mentally healthy - a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Average weight people can be unhealthy, and non-average weight people can be healthy.
Behaviors, not weight, are appropriate health goals.
But OUTSIDE the eating disorder world none of the above is true. In fact, most people believe the opposite on every single point, and are not aware of any other way to think or that the science supports all of the above. I am sucker-punched to read that our First Family put their daughters on a "diet" because they feared "obesity" and no doubt will be lauded for it.
This is not an eating disorder issue, however, and it should not be only us who know this and speak out about it. These are medical, social, and ultimately self-defeating errors in thinking that do harm to all children and all of us. I am very sad today."
Michelle, thank you for the coffee and conversation. You have a lot of power. Use it well.
Eat well! Live well! Be well!