Obesity rates among children ages 2-17 years nearly tripled in Canada between 1979 and 2004. These statistics have spurred on calls for a “war on obesity”, featuring messages that encourage people to “eat less, and move more.” A popular belief is that obesity is a preventable condition and a problem of personal control. This belief exists in spite of research showing that obesity is caused not by one factor but a variety of things outside of our control. Near the top of that list is the current food environment, which encourages the consumption of cheap energy-dense foods, and is considered a causal factor for population weight gain.
The supposed link between personal control and obesity has created a stigma attached to people who are obese and led to the proliferation of unhealthy diet and exercise programs. Weight bias, which is defined as “the inclination to form unreasonable judgments based on a person’s weight”, can cause psychological stress to those who experience it, which in turn leads to poor health outcomes. Children as young as three years old have been shown to hold negative attitudes and beliefs about overweight individuals. The psychological stress associated with weight discrimination can lead to further weight gain in children, as they are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating habits and avoid physical activity in school, creating a vicious cycle. Children’s media exacerbates the issue by pushing positive messages about being thin and negative messages about being overweight, while simultaneously spending billions to push energy dense, nutrient-poor food.
Efforts to reduce childhood obesity must address the multiple contributing forces and recognize that individual behaviours are shaped by an obesogenic environment. It is ludicrous to expect children to navigate their way through the current food system, yet the weight bias towards overweight children continues along with childhood obesity rates.
While obesity is acceptable and even valued in some cultures, the opposite holds true in Western countries, where people idealize thinness. Although obesity does increase the risk for chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, it is important to note that health is not measured in pounds. Being thin does not guarantee health, just as being overweight does not guarantee illness. A combination of a nutritious diet and active lifestyle is the best predictor for being healthy.
You can do your part by speaking out against weight bias. Talk to your kids about the harmful effects of discrimination, and reflect personally on any weight bias you may hold. Childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adult obesity, meaning that the high rates of childhood obesity we are currently seeing will likely push obesity rates as a whole up. While preventing weight gain should be the ultimate goal, high rates of obesity are here to stay, and weight management is and will be an important part of many people’s lives. It is important that we move forward with health policy, to reduce the burden of people living with excess weight.