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Healthy Isn't Always Skinny

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

We’ve come a long way fighting prejudice in this country.  It’s simply not acceptable to discriminate against someone based on gender, religion, sexual orientation or the color of their skin.

But when stories about whether or not Chris Christie would run for president ran through the media, the issue of his size and shape took center stage.  And yes, judgments were made.

His discipline and character were called into question with free advice such as “Eat a salad and take a walk,” and out-right mean statements like, “Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat.”

Others defended him including the Obesity Society, but an important lesson can be learned: size discrimination is alive and well, and it’s doing its share of harm.

Why weight seems different

I believe excess weight is viewed differently from other characteristics because people believe it’s a choice rather than something someone is born into (religion is a choice too, but somehow that seems different).

But those of us who have worked with people struggling with weight, or have struggled ourselves, know that it is much more complex than that. How someone was (or is) raised in regard to food, genetic makeup and the food culture plays a big role.  And research demonstrates that losing and maintaining weight loss is wrought with challenges even though popular diets sell it as “easy.”

What makes size prejudice unique is that overweight people are often their own harshest critics — so they too easily accept the discrimination.  In fact, a recent study published in Social Science & Medicine found that overweight individuals didn’t challenge those who stigmatized them — and they even blamed themselves for it.

Kids are following suit

Kids have definitely gotten the message that being big is bad.  According to statistics from the Eating Disorders Foundation’s website, 42% of 1st to 3rd grade girls want to be thinner and 81% of 10-year olds are afraid of being fat.

Worse yet, a 2007 study published in Psychological Bulletin examining four decades worth of studies found that overweight children are increasingly being stigmatized by their peers, teachers and parents, from ages as early as 3!

The researchers also found that children who are teased, bullied and rejected due to weight are up to three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and suffer health issues such as eating disorders and high blood pressure.  The researchers conclude that:

“Weight-based discrimination is as important a problem as racial discrimination or discrimination against children with physical disabilities. Remedying it needs to be taken equally seriously, if we are to protect the emotional and physical well-being of our nation’s children.”

Weight matters but it isn’t everything

Research reveals that weight is not the only determinant of good health.  Thin people who have bad eating habits can have negative health outcomes and bigger people with healthy habits can have positive health outcomes.

Bottom line: We simply can’t judge the health of someone based on size alone.

Treating weight as the be-all-end-all of health has other unintended consequences such as teaching parents that it’s okay to feed a thin child junk and acceptable to restrict a bigger child’s intake — both strategies that backfire in the long run.

Isn’t it time we to take the focus off of weight and, instead, make it just one of many things that make up a person’s health?  Without all that negativity, we’ll have more energy to create a culture that values healthy eating and physical activity for everyone, and no longer tolerates discrimination based on size and shape.

And by treating the cause instead of the symptom, we might even see positive changes in health outcomes, including weight.

Are you with me?

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