Beating Obesity without Risking Eating Disorders

A new publication in Pediatrics calls attention to a concern that doesn’t get much discussion — how to address obesity without risking eating disorders. Pervasive weight bias and a focus on appearance over health creates problems for people concerned about obesity and eating disorders alike. But more robust dialog between advocates for people with eating disorders and advocates for people with obesity could help address the problem.

Leslie Sim and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic report in Pediatrics that adolescents with a history of obesity are at risk for developing eating disorders and yet, because of their weight history, symptoms often go unrecognized and untreated.

Lynn Grefe, President of the National Eating Disorders Association, says that this observation is nothing new:

Our field has been saying that the more we’re pushing the anti-obesity message, the more we’re pushing kids into eating disorders by focusing on size or weight instead of health and wellness.

Stephen Cook is a pediatric obesity expert from the Golisano Children’s Hospital  at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He offers perspective on the need for a more holistic approach to the health of adolescents dealing with obesity:

As a doctor trained in both adult medicine and pediatrics I look at this as something that we approach the whole family about. It’s pretty common that more than one person in the household is affected by obesity. That is also why this is not just a question of willpower or one’s own choice. We need clinical strategies as well as social messages around having an even balance. I also try to emphasize with children just getting them to slow down their weight gain, not actually losing weight, can lead to improvement in the weight and health status. Just like we have to stop blaming the patient, we have to stop advertising false claims for quick fixes.

Poorly conceived childhood obesity campaigns (like some of these) hurt more than they help, with stigmatizing messages and images.

For professionals who deal with obesity and eating disorders every day, the challenge is clear. We need to focus on health, not arbitrary weight goals. Others need to get the message.

Click here to read more in USA Today and click here to read the report in Pediatrics.

Analyzing Mirror Self-Recognition, photograph © Gisela Giardino / flickr

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