Commentary

Doing It for the Children

This article originally appeared on Tech Central Station on July 11, 2005.
A recent report in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology says that girls as young as five years old are beginning to have problems with body image. The authors concluded that the girls “felt ‘paranoid’ about their weight — partly because of the Government’s anti-obesity message,” according to the London Telegraph. Girls as young as eight are being diagnosed with eating disorders.

The situation is no different in the United States. If we crunch the available data on eating disorders (with data from the National Institute of Mental Health) versus the number of children who have Type II Diabetes (the most common ailment associated with childhood obesity — data comes from the Center for Disease Control) we find that the average child today is somewhere between 222 and 1,097 times more likely to have an eating disorder than Type II Diabetes.

Why in the world would a state like Arkansas, then, boast about how it forces each of its public school students to stand on a scale, then sends notes home parents about the child’s Body Mass Index? Why are lawmakers in New York, Georgia, and Texas considering similar proposals? Because, obesity is the outrage du jour of late. Body image and eating disorders are passé. If policies enacted to fight obesity make adolescents and teens more likely to develop eating disorders, well, that’s a consequence of how some health activists and media outlets have arranged priorities.

The unfortunate policies don’t stop there. Why did Texas attempt to ban elementary students from bringing cupcakes to school, even to celebrate a birthday? Why have some lawmakers proposed allowing teachers to rifle through lunchboxes and seize contraband such as Snickers bars and Pixie Sticks?

The answer of course is hysteria. We’re in the midst of a moral panic over obesity. We’re told that we’ve been getting fatter for thirty years, and that this thickening of our waistlines portends a coming healthcare catastrophe. Yet over that same period of time, our life expectancy has risen to all-time highs, while cancer, heart disease, and stroke have dropped off dramatically.

Of course, when we’re talking about children, the rhetoric only heightens. “We need to do something — for the children,” is a refrain so common in American politics, it’s become cliché. Invariably, “for the children” means taking control away from parents, and handing it over to panicked bureaucrats and health activists. “For the children” means act now. It means do what at first blush seems obvious; to do what feels right, consequences and real world implications be damned.

Nutrition activists and self-appointed public health advocates are beating down the doors of Congress, and they want action — any action. At an obesity conference in June 2004, the president of largest public health organization in the country — the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — acknowledged that the real-world consequences of obesity weren’t yet known, but that, nevertheless, “we must act ahead of the science.”

That’s a rather remarkable charge. Act blindly, and rashly. Whether or not a given policy is practical, survives an analysis of its costs and benefits, or effects unintended consequences, then, isn’t important. Our children are getting big, anti-obesity crusaders say. And if their parents aren’t satisfactorily monitoring their own children’s diet and exercise, it’s time for the state to step in.

In an important new paper, Dr. Jon Robison calls for a “timeout” from all of the hysteria. He calmly and lucidly scours and summarizes the body of academic work on childhood obesity, and comes to a few conclusions most Americans might find surprising, or at least contrary to conventional wisdom.

First, Dr. Robison explains, there’s really no good way to define “childhood obesity.” The BMI is problematic enough for adults, but it’s even more impractical when used on children, who grow and physically mature at different rates at different ages. It’s not really even possible to define what is a “normal” weight for a given child at a given age and a given height. Children’s growth habits just aren’t predictable enough to draw such broad conclusions.

Second, the data is far from conclusive that overweight or obese children grow up to be overweight, obese, or unhealthy adults. This is the most common reason advocates and policymakers often call for government action.

Third, it’s likely that the real scope of the child obesity “epidemic” has been exaggerated by the government, public health activists and the media. Dr. Robison notes that between eighty-five and ninety percent of American children are of acceptable weight. The trend seems to hold in Britain too, where activists have been particularly alarmist and reactionary about the problem.

Fourth, Dr. Robison also debunks the common assumption that our kids are not only eating more today, they’re eating more of the wrong kinds of food. He cites published, peer-reviewed research showing that energy intake among children is actually on a downward slope, as is the number of calories kids consume from fat.

Next, Dr. Robison questions claims (often put forth by advocates for the food industry), that today’s kids are plumper because they don’t move as much as they did in the past. While the evidence on just how active today’s kids are is conflicting, Dr. Robison points to several studies that find no direct correlation between, for example, TV viewing habits and childhood obesity.

Dr. Robison then examines and dismantles the panoply of proposals aimed at reducing the collective weight of America’s kids. He concludes that most place too much emphasis on restricting options, focus too fixedly on thinness, and create unhealthy relationships between children and food (designating “good” and “bad” foods).

Ultimately, Dr. Robison suggests we inculcate in kids a healthier approach to food, one that emphasizes the inherit risks and fallibility of dieting, accepts the fact that we human beings come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, encourages pleasurable, sustainable physical activity, and fosters normal eating patterns based on our internal cues of hunger appetite and satiety.

The media are always eager to bite on a crisis. See the rash of shark attack reports several summers ago (actual attacks were down), or the kidnapping reports from three summers back (those were down, too). The CDC’s now-discredited claim that 400,000 Americans die each year due to obesity was swallowed whole by journalists and health professionals across the country, with very little skepticism. They also bit on a story a decade ago that put the number at 300,000. These statistics weren’t without their critics. It’s just that those critics didn’t make the news. Of course, the critics were ultimately vindicated — the agency recently revised its figure down to 115,000, or 25,000 when you discount for lives saved from the health benefits of modest overweight. That means the original figure was off by a factor of fifteen.

Perhaps we’ve finally reached the point where the obesity panic is the “norm” in newsrooms, and its critics are the kind of “man bites dog” story journalists clamor for. If that’s the case, Dr. Robison’s thorough refutation of the conventional wisdom on childhood obesity ought to provide ample grist for the next round of stories on America’s battle with the bulge.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.