Health Experts: Fine Line Between Fighting Obesity, Preventing Eating Disorders

Updated: 03/11/2013 5:59 AM By: Naomi Pescovitz

From the White House to the cafeteria, there is a growing nationwide attack on childhood obesity. But some health care professionals warn there is a fine line between preventing obesity and sparking an eating disorder.

6 percent of 9th grade girls in Minnesota are obese. About 14 percent of adolescent girls have an eating disorder. The statistics leave educators stuck in the middle and some teens unsure of themselves.

"If you look good and you feel good, and you are healthy, that number (weight) is irrelevant. And that's the hardest thing with, especially teenagers, to get them to understand," said Anoka High School Football Coach Jeff Buerkle.

Buerkle also teaches health and physical education. With as many as 41 kids per class, Buerkle says discussions about calories and weight are careful.

"You have the little tiny petite girl that someone might look at and think she's anorexic, but she's not. She's just blessed with a great metabolism. You might have a kid that's maybe 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds overweight that does everything in their power," Buerkle said.

"A lot of times, we send, unwittingly, send the wrong message," said Dr. Jillian Lampert, Senior Director for Business Development and Public Affairs at the Emily Program.

"Eating isn't supposed to be a math problem. It's just supposed to be eating. So when we are teaching kids to approach eating like a math problem, I think we'll get ourselves in trouble," Lampert said.

A C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health shows 82 percent of parents report at least one school-based intervention aimed at preventing obesity. 7 percent say their kids have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

Some patients are not sure what to think.

"The messages I got in health class from my really well intended teachers were really confusing because they sound like I can't eat anything, everything is bad for me, all fat is bad," Lampert said, recounting what patients have expressed.

The solution seems simple.

"This is a balance," Buerkle said.

"I encourage them to teach a message of balance," Lampert said.

But it is a balance that isn't easy to strike.

"Kids are dieting because, partially because, we've told them they need to be worried about their weight. The kids who are dieting are more likely to develop eating disorders than the kids who aren't dieting. So we need to pay attention to those kids who are taking those health messages and implementing them in ways we probably don't want them to," Lampert said.

The Emily Program is working to pass legislation in Washington on this issue. Among other initiatives, the FREED Act would study BMI reporting in schools and help train teachers on how to handle kids with eating disorders.

"We've taken this sort of obesity hysteria to a degree that everyone is a little afraid about what they eat and that eating becomes this sort of moral judgment," Lampert said.