Obesity Awareness or Discrimination?

iPhone problem foods

A couple of days ago, we looked at the state of Georgia’s childhood obesity billboards, but, believe it or not, they are only the tip of a very large iceberg, consisting of what some see as a national trend that is headed in exactly the wrong direction. AllVoices contributor Anne Hart put together a very comprehensive resource page that turns out to be the motherlode of information about what may or may not be a helpful method of dealing with childhood obesity.

She includes a long list of media resources including videos, blogs, new studies, and reports, that is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in looking into this vexed question: What effect do public awareness campaigns have, and where is the line between raising awareness and creating bias against the obese?

Hart says,

Parents are concerned that the more these videos and billboards are distributed online and in public spaces, the more discrimination will increase targeting children who are overweight or obese. Who motivates via stigma? Why do kids need to be scared straight when it comes to food choices?… How incendiary are the billboard ads and viral videos scaring obese kids into dietary changes?

Discrimination is one of the issues, a concern about how overweight children are seen by their peers and by the adults in their world. And self-image is the other issue, how such children are seen by themselves. Hart points out that all the publicity could just make kids feel worse, so they resort to comfort eating in order to feel better — which is the very behavior that got them into the chubby sizes in the first place.

She is worried by the fact that not all weight issues are caused by personal behavior, but by other factors that are beyond a child’s control such as genetics and metabolism. And, really, in most cases, even which foods children eat is not a matter that personal responsibility can change, since many kids are pretty much limited to the culinary choices provided by their parents and schools.

There has been a certain amount of parental outrage over any suggestion from the government at any level that a child’s body weight is anyone else’s business. Sarah Palin was the national spokesperson for the notion that the government should just
butt out. It gets into all kinds of complicated debates about morals and ethics. Then, there is the chance that negative publicity will inspire some parents to do something drastic, like send a child to a tough-love boot camp, a move that could motivate a child in the wrong direction, into rebellion, and self-destructive behavior born of anger.

Worried and distracted parents are capable of making bad choices, too. A popular TV series featured a subplot where a mother concentrated the wrong kind of attention on her chunky young daughter, and even laced the girl’s hidden candy stash with laxatives, causing the child to have an embarrassing accident at school.

Sure, that was fiction, it was a script invented by a writer — but as we see in the headlines every day, real people have a way of coming up with ideas crazier than even the most fevered writer’s imagination could concoct. How long will it be until the headlines feature an overly concerned parent trying home-brew liposuction, or something equally bizarre?

Hart poses the bottom-line question:

What can people do to help these kids without making them feel there’s something so wrong with them that they are discriminated against by peers and employers?

Speaking of help, here’s an idea. This collection of information is called “An iPhone App Intervention for Childhood Obesity, Based on the Substance Dependence (Addiction) Model” (PDF), and it’s significant even for someone who hasn’t come around to being fully persuaded that food can be addictive. Whether or not they think of it in terms of substance dependence, everybody has problem foods, and they know it. What we have here is a Problem Foods Control Panel, designed to give a child the means to become unhooked from one problem food at a time. Like anything else, the program works if you work the program.

Dr. Pretlow says,

Our app will work for individuals who are willing to give up their problem foods.

If that’s you or someone you love, check it out!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Are overweight children disgraced nationally by public billboards and viral video campaigns online?,” AllVoices, 05/02/11
Image by Dr. Pretlow, used with permission.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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