Next in the fight against childhood obesity: shaming parents?

If we really want to decrease childhood obesity, do you know what we need to do?

Fight parental obesity.

I’m serious. We’ve known for a while that what puts a child at biggest risk of being obese is having an obese parent, and just recently a study was released that said the same thing. Having an obese parent is a bigger risk factor than watching tons of TV or having a bad diet or never exercising. If we could get parents to a better weight, the researchers said, we could cut childhood obesity in half.

That’s why ads like the ones from Minnesota make sense:

They are short and worth watching, but in case you don’t have time: basically, overweight parents have embarrassing “aha” moments, realizing that their (overweight) children are imitating their unhealthy habits (buying junk food and eating huge quantities of unhealthy foods). “Today is the day we set a better example for our kids,” says the tagline.

These aren’t perfect ads. I get that. The biggest reason is that they shame people, and that’s not a nice thing to do. That’s why a lot of us were really uncomfortable with the Georgia ads that featured obese kids with taglines like “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.” Shaming kids crossed a line. But shaming parents…well, that may be necessary.

Critics say that fat doesn’t necessarily equal unhealthy, and I suppose that’s true. If you are overweight but exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, you could very possibly be healthier than a skinny couch potato who lives on Doritos. But in general, being overweight is not good for you. It raises your risk of heart disease (a lot), diabetes, cancer, orthopedic problems, mental health problems and even economic problems. It’s certainly not something we strive for—or want for our children.

And while there are certainly overweight people who eat healthfully, the parents in the ads didn’t. That’s who the ads are targeting: parents who really do need to take a hard look at what they are putting in the grocery cart or on the dinner table. Yes, we need campaigns that are aimed at encouraging healthy habits; the fun Blue Cross Blue Shield “Do Groove” video does just that, encouraging people to get moving. (I keep hoping to see people dancing in waiting rooms like the guy in the video, but it hasn’t happened yet). But as someone who spends a lot of time talking in detail with families about what they eat, I think we need more of those “aha” moments. Since talking until I’m blue in the face isn’t helping, maybe shaming people (grownups, not kids) is what we need to try next.

It’s also true that we’ll never conquer the obesity epidemic if we don’t face some hard truths about grain subsidies and other economic (and marketing) factors that are contributing to it. Everyone should be able to afford healthy food—and have access to safe and affordable exercise options. There are real social justice issues here, and we need a groundswell of indignation and action.

But we can’t waste time waiting for the perfect ad, the perfect approach that changes behavior without offending anyone. Lives are in danger, and things aren’t getting any better. Just yesterday I was reading about how the military is getting involved in the fight against childhood obesity, because one in four Americans weighs too much for military service (makes me wonder if this is some sort of silver lining—obesity could end up forcing peace). The implications for the future health of our children, and of our society and our economy, are staggering.

We aren’t going to get anywhere in the fight against childhood obesity if we don’t deal with the biggest risk factor. To me, it’s worth hurting some feelings if we save some lives.



For information on what Boston Children’s Hospital is doing to fight childhood obesity, visit the website of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program and read about the Fitness in the City program as well as about our advocacy efforts, such as working for better school nutrition.

3 thoughts on “Next in the fight against childhood obesity: shaming parents?

  1. It’s about more than shaming about encouraging them to lose weight…as children and adults they have been shamed enough. Here’s an idea …how about making weight loss more affordable..educating the parents and not be bullies.Getting insurance companies to cover weight loss options. Please save your snarky remarks for something else..I’m looking for help not hinder. Thanks

  2. This is exactly why fat patients complain about doctors and their fat biases. Do you need a clinical psychologist to tell you shaming people for their weight will accomplish nothing? That it is a form of emotional abuse? You think these ads are great, then I guess the tears of crying parents who have been blamed for what science tells us is a genetic predisposition their child got from them that made their child overweight.

    Remember first do no harm? That applies to mental health too. 2 things will happen if you shame parents. One is they will think you are n unethical doctor and never return, because shaming people is an unethical practice. Two, you’ll have upset a family who happen to have the genes for being overweight. Meanwhile, thin families, they must have perfect health right, they’re not going to be lectured about their diets?

    It’s a sad day when NAAFA is more educated about health than doctors. Everyone fat or thin should eat healthily. The only thing you can tell by the size of a person’s body, is how much prejudice you hold against fat bodies. Yet you champion ads that single out fat people. So not only are you emotionally abiding fat people, you’re neglecting the health of thin people, because according to many doctors thinness cures everything. Thin people simply cannot eat unhealthy foods and have a poor diet, why they’re thin after all!

    You should consider the Health at Every Size movement. All bodies can be harmed by poor diets, and all people can be unhealthy. Singling out fat people is a lazy solution, to a complex issue. That is that genes determining body size.

    Assuming fat people must be unhealthy, and thin people must be healthy based on correlation, it’s not just unprofessional frankly it’s pathetic. A 3rd grade child could grasp this, yet the majority of doctors don’t. Human beings aren’t machines, they don’t work by fixed rules. All PSAS like this do is promote fat prejudice, and to hear a doctor suggesting that’s a good thing, that is some serious medical bias going on there.

    I hope parents know before they bring kids to your office you are discriminating against fat people. No child should endure a lecture that tells them they need to engage in self starvation or “dieting” to become “healthy”. All children need to eat right and exercise. Did you know we have 5 year old children with starvation eating disorders, because doctors like you instilled a fear of being fat in them? I don’t know how that’s any less offensive than a doctor contaminating a child with a physical illness, since the younger eating disorders like Anorexia start, the longer it has a hold over it’s victims.

    I’m sure they’re told it isn’t a big deal, they’re thin, they must be healthy. This is how eating disordered individuals go without their eating disorder being noticed. So what I want to know is why is being thin even if it’s through an eating disorder is assumed to be healthy, and being fat is assumed to be unhealthy. What about how screwed up everyone is because no one knows what health bloody is anymore, because our doctors base health on a set of prejudices and correlated data now.

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