Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Lose the Weight Watchers

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Last year Weight Watchers rebranded as WW because they wanted to pretend that they were about healthy lifestyles and not just weight loss. This week they announced the release of their new weight loss app for kids (as young as eight!) and teens. They’re trying to frame it as “helping kids and teens build healthy habits” but when the central feature of the app is food tracking don’t be fooled; this is Weight Watchers points for kids and creating a “bad food” “good food” dichotomy is likely to do anything but help these kids build life-long healthy habits.

An eight year old tracking every morsel of food they eat with the sole aim of losing weight is pretty much the antithesis of a healthy habit. Rather than help kids develop healthy habits this app is far more likely to instil them with an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. And while I personally ascribe to the belief that weight is not indicative of health, I hope that all healthcare providers and parents can see why an app like this could be damaging to children whether or not they view “overweight” and “obesity” as a “problem”. Weight is not a modifiable behaviour and focusing on weight loss as an end goal doesn’t promote the adoption of healthy behaviours. Rather, it promotes restricted eating and quite probably disordered eating habits in order to attain that goal.

Given that very few adults successfully maintain intentional long-term weight loss, I find it baffling that WW claims that their new app is “evidence-based” and will somehow be more successful (if you are measuring success by pounds lost) in children and youth than similar programs have been in adults. It also makes me sad to see the quotes around “stopping arguments about food” so that parents and children get along better. Placing the responsibility for food choices in the hands of an app rather than working on fostering a healthy food environment at home may seem ideal but this doesn’t truly promote healthy behaviours. I know not everyone can afford to work with a registered dietitian (and not all RDs ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to body weight); however, I recommend Ellyn Satter’s books which can be found at your public library if you want to help your child attain a healthy relationship with food.

It’s also important to keep in mind that WW is a for-profit business. They are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They are doing this because there’s money to be made – one month use of the app is $69 USD. They’re doing this because a “fun” app is an easier sell to parents who are concerned about their children’s weight than working on the division of responsibility, role modelling healthy behaviours and positive relationships with food, and cooking and eating nutritious balanced meals together as a family. They’re doing this because weight bias is so rampant in our society that many people can think of few things worse than being fat and parents are desperate to save their children from that plight. I get that. Parents just want their children to be healthy. Unfortunately, an app that encourages a restrictive diet mentality is likely to achieve the opposite of health promotion.


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A bit about that working mums make kids fat study

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This article: The Impact of Maternal Employment on Children’s Weight: Evidence from the UK came out a couple of weeks ago and I was appalled. Essentially, the article is blaming working mothers for making their children fat. As if working mums don’t have enough guilt dished out to them already. As if there’s a simple causal relationship between obesity and maternal employment. And as if there isn’t already enough unhelpful fat-shaming going on in our society. I was going to blog about it but a number of other people already have so why reinvent the wheel. Instead, check-out these pieces:

Working Mothers Don’t Make Children Obese by Gid M-K; Health Nerd on Medium explains why the reporting on this study was all wrong.

Aiming the Obesity Blame Game at Working Moms by Ted Kyle on ConscienHealth reminds us that correlation is not causation.

A TL;DR thread from Sean Harrison breaking down the many limitations of the study.

If you’ve come across any other great criticisms of the research (and media surrounding it) please share in the comments. I would especially love to see some from a weight-neutral perspective as the majority of the criticism has been around the study methods and sexism but I think that sizeism is a major problem with the research as well.

 

 


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A “no seconds” policy will only feed disordered eating habits

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When I saw the headline “Could enforcing a ‘no seconds’ policy at dinner time help combat childhood obesity?” I thought “I hope this isn’t as awful as I think it’s going to be”. I’m sorry to say that it was every bit as awful as it sounded, and then some.

I was horrified to read the following in the first paragraph: “doctors are warning that parents should ban their children from second helpings to protect them from becoming overweight”. It didn’t get any better. This suggestion was based on research by a behavioural obesity researcher. The crux of her argument being that children are becoming overweight and obese because their parents are allowing them to stuff their greedy little faces at mealtimes. She is quoted as saying: “all parents should be being vigilant about portion control, so a no seconds policy” so, unfortunately, it would seem that her opinions are not being misrepresented.

Apparently the reason that many children are becoming overweight and obese is because they’re eating 12 more calories at every meal than they need. I’d just like to point out that if this were in fact the case, then these children would not be getting sufficient calories for healthy growth and development if they were denied seconds as a second helping of nearly anything would likely exceed 12 calories. Twelve calories of most foods would amount to a minuscule quantity.

According to Dr Llewellyn (the researcher mentioned above), “Some children are unable to regulate what they eat for themselves and many will not turn down food, even if they are not hungry”. Indeed, there are some children with genetic disorders, such as Prader-Willi Syndrome who are constantly hungry. However, disorders such as PWS affect about 1 out of every 15, 000 children born. That’s nowhere near the third of children estimated to be overweight or obese.

I think that enforcing no seconds policies will only lead to increased rates of disordered eating. Most children are born with the innate ability to eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. Most children unlearn this ability as they get older and are encouraged by parents to clean their plates, are bombarded by food advertisements, observe the eating habits of family members, are served excessively large portions at meals, are offered treats and snacks throughout the day, etc.

More important than a theoretical excess 12 calories at each meal that a child may or may not be consuming is the formation of a healthy relationship to food. Arbitrarily placing limits on servings at mealtime will only feed an unhealthy relationship with food. This sort of thing teaches children not to trust their hunger cues, having the opposite of the intended effect. It teaches children that food is emotionally wrought. Denying hungry children food teaches them that they cannot trust their appetites and may also teach them that their self worth is measured on the scale. Pretty much the definition of an unhealthy relationship with food.

Rather than making mealtimes a minefield, parents should be role modelling healthy attitudes and eating habits. They should be providing their children with nutritionally balanced meals at regular times and allowing their children to decide when they’re full. Whether that mean that they leave food on their plates or ask for more.


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Childhood obesity is not something to be battled

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Image by Mike Mozart on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

“Disappointed” doesn’t cover how I felt reading this article from the CBC. I’m used to hearing people blame individuals for being overweight. It’s always frustrating. However, it’s enraging to see a director of a Childhood Obesity Foundation laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of parents. He should know better than that.

In the article he says that the government should assume some responsibility for “combating childhood obesity” but that “the buck sort of does stop with the family”. So much no.

Obviously parents want to raise healthy children. Yes, it’s the parents who buy and prepare the food for the household. That doesn’t mean that the onus for “combating childhood obesity” should lie with them.

Our society is designed in such a manner as to make healthy choices incredibly difficult. Forget about combating obesity – can I just say how much I hate that wording? We should be talking about fostering health. The proliferation of cheap calorically dense and nutrient light quick and easy meal options makes the unhealthy choice all too easy. The lack of value on time spent cooking and the over-emphasis on time spent at work makes these options all too appealing. There are myriad reasons that children are overweight and/or unhealthy. Most of which stem from societal issues; not from lack of parents caring and trying to do the best for their children.

Tom Warshawski, the director of the Childhood Obesity Foundation gives three tips for parents to “fight childhood obesity”. The first tip is to “take authority”. Stand-up to the Lunchables and big sodas. Fair enough, until our government stand-up for its citizens and makes these types of food less heavily marketed, affordable and available, it really is down to the parents to try to swim against the tide and limit purchases of such items.

Tip number two, sticking to a recommended diet, is one that makes me cringe a little. It’s that damn four-letter word. Sure, ensuring your child, and you, follow a nutritious diet is important for good health. That doesn’t mean that any specific diet regime need be enforced. Being overly strict about food may backfire and lead to disordered eating later in life. Go for nutritious meals that the family enjoys and let there be treats. Try not to take the pleasure out of eating.

Tip number three is that it’s a family battle. While I wholeheartedly agree that the entire family should be making the same healthy choices, I disagree with the way that this is framed. This is not a battle. If you think about food as a battle then you are always going to lose. Food is not the enemy. Healthy eating isn’t an all or nothing scenario. You don’t all have to give-up chips and pop to be healthy. Parents should lead by example and role model healthy eating behaviours and attitudes. Leading their children into battle against food is not doing this.


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Will drinking low-fat milk make kids fat?

A recent study was reported as finding that switching to skim milk won’t prevent obesity among toddlers. These results are surprising, as health care providers (including dietitians) suggest consumption of low-fat milk after 2-years-of-age.

A closer look at the actual study left me questioning this reporting. The first thing that puzzled me was the grouping of milk-types. “Low-fat” milk included skim and 0.1%, while “high-fat” milk included 2% and whole. It was always my understanding that low-fat milk encompassed 2% milk. This grouping also meant that very few children were included in the low-fat milk group (only 14% at the initial 2-year assessment and 19% at the 4-year follow-up). The researchers stated that the low-fat milk drinkers had “higher odds” of being overweight or obese but did not state precisely what these odds were. I wish that I had the ability and the tools to determine if the findings would change if the 2% milk drinkers were incorporated into the low-fat milk group. I suspect that the odds of overweight and obesity might be different then.

Another major drawback of this study (which the researchers mention) is that they don’t examine the rest of the diet. That’s right, all they assessed was beverage consumption (milk, juice, and sugar-sweetened beverages… oddly, no mention of water). Without knowledge of the rest of the food that children were consuming, there is no way we can say with any certainty that consuming low-fat milk contributes to overweight and obesity.

Beverage consumption was also reported by the parents, not observed. Thus, there could have been inaccuracies in the reporting which contributed to the findings. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if parents of overweight children were concerned about being judged and fudged the beverage consumption they reported to make themselves appear in a more positive light for providing their children with low-fat milk, and possibly, fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Of course, this is just speculation. However, there are many reasons why self-reports of behaviours may be inaccurate and a number of those reasons may confound the results.

While these findings seem to contradict the widespread belief that low-fat milk is healthier for children than full-fat milk, as you can see there are a number of reasons why these results may also be meaningless. Don’t switch your child from 1% to full-fat milk on the basis of reports such as this. The whole diet and lifestyle is far more important in determining your child’s weight and health than the type of milk consumed.