diets · eating · eating disorders · food · health

If not Weight Watchers for children, then what?

Regular readers know that I’m no fan (to put it mildly) of Weight Watchers. See I hate you Weight Watchers.

I think it’s extra awful that they are offering free summer memberships to children and I’ve written about that too.

(Added: Yes, it’s not just Weight Watchers. Goodlife Fitness does it too for high school students. FWIW, I also hate them.)

Yet, I can see the attraction. We know adults find it impossible to lose weight. That diets don’t work is a regular theme here on the blog.

Still, many people who agree that there is not much we can do about adult obesity other than helping people not gain weight in the first place, view children as the front line in the “war against obesity.” The thought is that if we can stop obesity either before it develops or in its early stages, we can avoid the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.

(Added: For those who don’t know the blog that well, I’m using talk of “obesity” and the “war on obesity” even though I think these are very problematic. See Catherine’s post with which I agree, “Obese” is a bad word—it’s got to go. I’m doing it because I think that even if that’s your framework you shouldn’t endorse dieting for children.)

What’s the problem then? Couldn’t children who are looking for help, who struggle with their weight, find some sensible advice at Weight Watchers? It’s got to be better than the semi-starvation plan that got me through high school. I lived for years on coffee, cigarettes (and, this was the 70s and 80s, we didn’t know better) bran muffins. We know lots of older children and young teens try wacky diets. At least Weight Watchers is all about regular food and includes all the food groups.

The big problem is that while common sense seems obvious, it’s actually not clear what works. “Eat less, move more,” sure, and what could be wrong with that? (James Fell says it’s bullshit and he makes me laugh.) But we don’t have a very good grip on the causes of obesity. Nor do we have a very good handle on what works to reduce childhood obesity. It’s definitely not as simple as “eat less, move more.”

If a medication had the same success rate as dieting—where ‘diet’ is behavior aimed at producing a calorie deficit by eating less and moving more—and a similar track record of bad side effects (including significant weight gain), there is no way we’d prescribe it to anyone, let alone children.

What do we know? We know what doesn’t work. Shame and stigmatization don’t work. See campaign takes creative aim at Georgia’s anti-obesity ads.

You might think who would recommend shaming, anyway? But bioethicist Daniel Callahan outright advocates shaming in his opinion piece, “Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic,” Hastings Center Report 43, no. 1 (2013): 34-40.

fat activist marilyn wann

What about labelling without shame, simply describing overweight and obesity without judgement?

However, even telling children they are overweight has bad effects

“A recent study by researchers at UCLA found that if girls had been called “too fat” by someone by age 10, they were more likely to be “obese” at age 19, and that the more people who told her she was “too fat” the more her chances of being “obese” increased. The study included controlled for income, race, childhood weight and puberty age.” See here.

Girls who are told by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate or teacher that they are too fat at age 10 are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study by UCLA psychologists shows. The study looked at 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 white girls living in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., 58 percent of whom had been told they were too fat at age 10. All the girls had their height and weight measured at the beginning of the study and again after nine years.

Overall, the girls labeled fat were 1.66 times more likely than the other girls to be obese at 19, the researchers found. They also found that as the number people who told a girl she was fat increased, so did the likelihood that she would be obese nine years later. (These findings appear in the June 2014 print issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics and are published online April 28.)

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and the study’s senior author. “Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.”

See also “Adolescent Dieting May Predict Obesity and Eating Disorders” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2006.

Doctors suggest weighing children without judgement. It’s just a number. That’s all.

A set of swings with no one in them. Photo by Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

One other suggestion is to decouple inactivity and obesity and focus is on the inactivity side of the equation. There are obesity related reasons to care about inactivity but that’s not the only reason. There are also good reasons to decouple them. Efforts at improving activity (and nutrition) shouldn’t be measured solely in terms of impact on obesity.

There are no studies showing harmful effects of increasing children’s activity levels. Thin people need to move more too and overweight and obese people shouldn’t quit exercising if the scale doesn’t move

I think a similar focus on nutrition and developing a healthy relationship with food would be good regardless of its impact on weight and BMI.

But until we have a good handle on the causes of childhood obesity I think that guilting parents and shaming children has to end.

We know diets don’t work. We know body shaming doesn’t work. It turns out that even naming the problem makes it worse. Children who are told they are fat by friends, family, doctors are more likely to gain weight.

So what to do?

First, don’t take them to Weight Watchers.

Second, help them learn to appreciate the bodies they have and the things that these bodies can do. Make movement fun and joyful.

Third, help children learn to cook at home and make family meals happy occasions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines (see here) on dealing with weight and kids suggests getting rid of body shaming, weight talk, and dieting because it predisposes kids to eating disorders and to eventual weight gain as a result of disordered eating. Since the old way of trying to eliminate obesity tends to make people more prone to illness, there are also new guidelines including emphasizing exercise and nutrition, NOT body size.

That’s all I’ve got. How about you?

body image · diets · eating · eating disorders · fat · food

Weight Watchers is going after children and Sam thinks that’s extra awful

As you may know, if you’re a blog regular, I hate Weight Watchers.

They’re now marketing to children, offering free classes with parent’s permission. See here.

Rebecca Scritchfield writes,

“Weight Watchers this week announced its plans to offer free six-week memberships to kids as young as 13, beginning this summer. The company’s move is part of a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life. (Start ’em young, right?) As a health professional and mother, I am appalled. With celebrity names such as Oprah Winfrey, who is on the board of directors, and DJ Khaled, the latest spokesperson for Weight Watchers, the company is on track to exert powerful influence on people far and wide. Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this “free” membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are “problems,” and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear.”

There are many problems with this plan but even if you just care about weight, it’s a disaster.

Study after study shows that early dieting is a huge predictor of weight gain.

The reasons aren’t clear. See Why does dieting predict weight gain in adolescents? Findings from project EAT-II: a 5-year longitudinal study.

I’m one of those kids who joined Weight Watchers and attended with my parents’ permission. I’m not sure if and how that contributed to future weight gain but I do know that I wasn’t really that chubby when I started.

I also know it made me think of myself as someone whose weight, whose body, was a problem to be solved. Best tackle it while you’re young, people would say.

It did start the habit of dieting that persisted through my teens and twenties.

What do you think of Weight Watchers, diets, and weekly weigh ins for children?

Bowls of fruit
Three bowls of breakfast berries, photo by Unsplash
body image · diets · family · motivation · weight loss

“You’ve Lost Weight! You Look Great!” Isn’t a Compliment

compliment-42Last week, a friend reported how horrible she felt when someone in her workplace whom she didn’t know very well complimented her on her recent weight loss. As it happens, my friend is losing weight to prepare for a figure competition. But this remark made her question her “before” look.  In her case, her “before” body is the one she has whenever she’s not prepping for a competition because the competition body isn’t sustainable.  (see here for why that’s the case)

Implicit in the so-called compliment about weight loss is the assumption that you really didn’t look so great before.  But now!  Wowza!  Looking good!

There are lots of reasons to think that you’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to give them the “look at you! You’ve lost weight!” compliment.

1. When we think of it in that way, it’s not such a great compliment. It’s a set-up for self-consciousness and negative self-judgment of our past selves. When remarking on weight loss is offered as a compliment, the speaker clearly thinks that there’s been a noticeable and notable improvement in how the person looks.  Without the normative standard of “thinner is better,” the comment would have no value as a compliment at all.

2. It’s also a set-up for our future selves because, for the most part, diets don’t work in the long run. Much of the research out there shows that those who lose weight by dieting now have a pretty good chance of gaining it all back and more within 2-5 years (if not sooner).  Diets and weight loss programs have very poor results over time.  See Regan’s post, “The Thing about Weight Watchers” and this report from UCLA.

3. It reinforces the notion that it’s okay to monitor other people’s bodies.  When the blog first began, I talked about “the panopticon” in relation to tracking.  The panopticon is a prison design (from 18th C philosopher Jeremy Bentham). Its key feature is that the prisoners cannot tell when they are being watched and when they are not.  The uncertainty about when they are under surveillance means that prisoners begin to regulate themselves. Philosopher Michel Foucault, and later, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky, offered the panopticon as a metaphor for contemporary society.  Bartky uses it to explain how women fall into line with the standards of normative femininity.  If we condone comments on people’s weight loss (or gain, but we are loathe to do that since it’s thought to be an insult), we are promoting a panopticon-like scenario where people the expectation of random surveillance becomes the norm.

4. It reinforces the idea that it’s okay to let people know that we are monitoring and judging their bodies. One thing that shocked my friend in the story I opened with was that she really didn’t even know the person who commented on her weight.  And yet the person felt completely entitled to say something. What kind of a twisted world do we live in where the state of our bodies is fair game for comments from whoever feels like making them?

5. It assumes that we are trying to lose weight and that, therefore, our weight loss is an accomplishment worth congratulating us for.  I know, I know. For lots of people this is actually the case. When I attended Weight Watchers, we would literally applaud people for losing weight.  I’m sure I read somewhere in WW literature that receiving compliments from family and friends was a good motivator to keep us on track in “our weight loss journey.”  But hello!  Not everyone, everywhere is always trying to lose weight.  It’s offensive to make that assumption.

Almost 20 years ago, Sam and I learned our lesson about casually offering, “You’ve lost weight; you look great!” as a “compliment.”  If that’s the compliment you’re looking for, you won’t get it from us.  We ran into someone who used to work in our office but had moved to another unit.  We complimented her heartily on her lost weight.  Her response, “I have cancer.”

Awkward moment ensued.

Lesson learned.

If I could push rewind, I would approach it differently. I would say, “It’s so great to see you.  How have you been?”  At that point, she could choose either to tell us of her health issues or not tell us.  We could have a conversation about what we’ve been up to lately that focused on things that really matter instead of how her body looked to us.  Thankfully, our friend has since recovered from her illness. But we re-live the mortification of that major faux pas on a regular basis, pretty much any time we catch wind of anyone saying to anyone else, “You’ve lost weight. You look great.”

I do know that lots of people are in fact trying to lose weight and change their body composition.  They are putting in an active effort. They are not hiding it from anyone.  They themselves regard their progress on these fronts as accomplishments.  That’s all good. I myself would like to gain more muscle and I do have another trip to the bod pod scheduled to see how that’s going (for the sake of research, I swear!).

Nonetheless, I still urge everyone to re-think the weight loss comment as compliment for the reasons outlined above.

It’s nobody’s business whether someone has lost weight or not.  Friends, family, co-workers, and strangers do not have a right to monitor our bodies closely enough that they notice changes in our weight.  Even less do they have the right to talk about it, among themselves or to us.

You might want to say that it’s okay if we ourselves initiate the conversation. Still, I feel wary (and weary) of embarking on conversations in which the main topic is somebody’s weight.

And despite the good intentions that most have when they offer this compliment, it often comes across as a covert way of telling someone that they really didn’t look so good before.  We live in a society obsessed with “before and after” shots (it’s through those that WW “leaders” gain their credibility with the clients).  “Before” is always unacceptable. “After,” the “new you!” is to be congratulated and praised.

This whole approach comes perilously close to casting thinness and those who “achieve” it as virtuous.   The occupants of our “before” pictures are seen in a negative moral light.  Not only were we not so attractive with our unwieldy bodies that everyone noticed but kept silent about until we changed them, but also we were not so virtuous, were we?  It may be subtle and covert, but it’s shaming nonetheless.

Please join me in the boycott.

Read more about body image, body shaming, and the assumption that thin is better:

On Comparing

The Day I Discovered the Dreaded Camel Toe

Why the “Thigh Gap” Make Me Sad

Loving the Body You’ve Got

body image · diets · gender policing · health · weight loss

Three Amazing Rants about Food, Nutrition, and Weight Loss

Must be something in the air…

  • Krista Scott Dixon at Stumptuous in Rant 66 December 2012: The First Rule of Fast Club rants about and aims fury and righteous rage in the direction of lots of things including the following: why intermittent fasting may not be the cure all for women’s weight woes, why in general what works for young men won’t work for women, and why women shouldn’t listen to young, thin, male personal trainers.

Most lean young guys giving fitness and nutrition advice are basing that advice — in part — on their own bodily experience. Which won’t match yours. (See above.)

Most lean young guys giving fitness and nutrition advice have not seen a sufficiently diverse client base. Hey, that’s what happens when you’re young. It’s not bad. It’s just the math of reality. In a few decades, then they’ll be Dave Draper and have some awesome yarns to spin. And then maybe I’ll take their advice.

Food Villain Mythology is usually supported by a handful of (cherry picked) scientific studies and an elaborate and sophisticated web of logical fallacy. The resultant construct usually holds that the Food Villain in question is the root cause of either modern society’s obesity and diabetes epidemic, or the root cause of an individual’s obesity and illness. There is usually some kernel of truth in the claim. Take wheat for instance: it is true that wheat can be problematic for some individuals who have an allergy or intolerance, and for anyone who consumes it in excess or to the exclusion of other foods that would provide a more well rounded nutritional foundation. There are other issues with wheat too, involving its cultivation, processing, ubiquitousness and nutrient profile. But Food Villain Mythology has taken those issues and created what amounts to mass hysteria in some circles, with an entire mythology centering on wheat’s Magical Ability to single-handedly drive obesity and disease. Scary stuff.

Points, at first, were a fun game to follow, and they did make me more aware of the amount of vegetables and healthy foods I was consuming. Just like in my middle-school WW years, I carefully controlled my caloric intake, I joined Jazzercise (which, to this day, I love — fit is it!), and I ate Weight Watchers-sanctioned aspartame gummies (1 point, entire package, ingredients unpronounceable) nearly constantly. Fuck an apple, those fools were two points, and points were valuable, like precious gold. Or something even better because you can’t eat gold.

I’m working on my own Weight Watchers rant and will post it here in the near future. Til then, enjoy these.