Letting People with Obesity Off the Hook?

Should we let people with obesity off the hook? Someone recently read our post about Faith, Health, and Obesity and said that we “let the younger children off the hook.” He went on to say we are encouraging kids to think “If I’m obese there is nothing I can do about it, and it’s not my fault.”

Coincidentally, a new study in the January issue of Pediatrics shows that fully 64% of adolescents seeking treatment for obesity endure bullying at school. Another study in the same issue found that nearly a third of children with food allergies were teased or taunted because of it.

Rebecca Puhl and colleagues at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity conducted the study of bullying directed at adolescents with obesity. They found that most were bullied because of their weight by peers, friends, coaches, parents, and/or teachers. The bullying was chronic: 78% endured the bullying for a year and 36% endured it for five years.

Other studies have found that bullying can raise a teen’s likelihood for depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and, in rare cases, violent acts. It can also lead to post traumatic stress disorder in adulthood. Coaches, parents, and gym teachers make it worse for kids with excess weight by trying to shame them out of it.

In a companion editorial to these studies, Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that adults have an important role to play by modeling appropriate behaviors, intervening, and supporting the targets of bullying. But, he says, “These same adults can be part of the problem, sometimes serving as negative role models, ignoring the issue of bullying, failing to notice its signs, or actually bullying children themselves.”

So it’s easy to think that some of this problem has its roots in thinking we better not let them off the hook.

This notion is pervasive. One hears it from healthcare professionals and even some people who treat obesity. But it’s grounded in bias. The notion that holding people with obesity accountable — in other words blaming them — will help them get healthier is precisely wrong. Research shows that shaming leads to unhealthy eating behaviors and avoidance of needed medical care.

Can we tolerate shaming a child for any health problem? No. Of course obesity is a serious health problem. Like any other health problem, it’s not fair. It’s an adversity to confront. Children need healthy, loving families and other caring adults who equip and encourage them to be happy and healthy.

Click here to read about the studies at Boston.com, click here to read the Puhl study, click here to read the study of bullying children with food allergies, and click here to read the Schuster editorial.

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