by Dana Schuster, MS
Recently I saw a new advertisement for the YMCA that included the message that “exercise may just be the best way to prevent obesity.” Now don’t get me wrong, as a Health and Fitness Instructor, and a personal consumer of regular physical activity, I am all for both exercise and the YMCA (mostly), which generally tends to be one of the more body-diverse workout environments available. However, this commercial, along with the recent New England Journal of Medicine article by David Allison, et al, on “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity,” got me thinking about all of those things that people promote as ways to “prevent obesity”—particularly when working with children and their families.
I firmly believe that the experience of one person should not be viewed as evidence of what is true for everyone, and yet an individual experience can well be instructive when challenging the validity of healthcare providers’ and/or policy makers’ claims about preventing a person from becoming fat. So I decided to do a quick review of some of the most commonly made statements I hear from the healthcare providers and education colleagues with whom I work, when they are promoting strategies to address the “childhood obesity epidemic.”
So, here it is: Dana Schuster, case study.
I. Minimize weight gain when pregnant.
My mother was very weight conscious when pregnant with me, and while I do not know if she actually attempted to diet, I do know that she did not gain more than the recommended poundage. When I was born, I weighed in at about six and a half pounds, which was within the lower end of the healthy-baby weight range at the time.
II. Breastfeed for at least six months.
Even in the mid 1950s, when this feeding practice was not supported to the same degree as now, I know my mom did her best in this endeavor when I was an infant. Within my first year of life, I filled out so that I most resembled a miniature Michelin Man—all those lovely, cushy rolls! Yes, at the time, this was seen as a sign of “thriving.”
III. Serve home-cooked family meals that include fresh fruits and vegetables.
I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that could afford both a stay-at-home mom and fresh produce. My mother was a good cook and a nurse by profession, who believed in lots of green veggies, non-fat milk, and nutritious food choices. She was not a supporter of candy, chips, or snacks in general, and was mostly focused on the importance of health, as opposed to physical appearance, in her feeding practices.
IV. Don’t drink sodas, as they are a major cause of obesity.
I can’t remember a time when there were sodas either in our refrigerator, or purchased to consume when we were out and about. Well, perhaps there was the occasional bottle of 7 Up or ginger ale added to a holiday punch, but other than that, I never drank sodas, nor do I like soda now. I did go through a TAB phase when I was a dieting teenager. (Maybe if we just made everyone drink this particular carbonated beverage as representative of soda, they’d give up soda drinking all on their own from taste—disgust.)
V. Do regular physical activity/exercise.
Let’s see, I rode my bike all over the hills in my safe neighborhood (a sign of privilege, to be sure) and played active hide-and-seek with my siblings and dog in the field behind our house. From age nine to fourteen, I was a competitive swimmer with several hours of practice daily. I did gymnastics in middle school and LOVED PE class. In high school, I played water polo and continued to love PE class.
Hmmm. Growing up, I was the beneficiary of five of the top “obesity prevention” strategies currently being touted to children and their families. Time for the big reveal: I am a FAT adult.
This accounting of my personal history is not about trying to find the “reasons” I am the size I am, but to point out that putting the spotlight on a goal of preventing obesity will leave everyone short-changed and set up for potential “failure.” The good news for me is that most of the time growing up I didn’t have a clue that I was doing all these things so I wouldn’t get fat—I thought I was fueling my body, being strong, playing hard, and having fun. Imagine that.
In my work with school wellness efforts, I am all for encouraging and creating opportunities for children and teens to enjoy fun daily “recess,” drink water as a primary beverage, and eat foods that support their minds and bodies. But the focus must always be on weight-neutral skill development that facilitates our young people to learn to listen to and trust their wonderful bodies, and feel entitled to choose positive self-care behaviors throughout their lives.