Policy Point Wednesday: More Research on In-school Fitness and Nutrition Programs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEating Disorders, The Journal of Treatment and Prevention just released two new studies regarding school programs and their possible relationship to disordered eating. Unfortunately, the one that interests me most is behind a paywall, so I am only able to report what is stated in the abstract: ” differences across schools in percent of students engaging in DWCB (disordered weight-control behaviors) in the past month, ranging from less than 1% of the student body to 12%. School-neighborhood poverty was associated with higher odds of DWCB in boys.” In short, specifically in high-poverty areas, boys are at a higher risk of losing weight in unhealthy ways. (from The contribution of school environmental factors to individual and school variation in disordered weight control behaviors in a statewide sample of middle schools)

The second article, Trading Health for a Healthy Weight: The Uncharted Side of Healthy Weights Initiatives shows four case studies of disordered eating that were reported to be triggered by “healthy weight” initiatives in school programs. The authors of the article report that, while there has been much research on in-school anti-obesity efforts, data collected on potential harms was

“limited and problematic, making conclusions unreliable (Carter & Bulik, 2008). This has led to the need for case study reports to uncover inadvertent yet harmful consequences brought on by widespread population-based approaches to weight-focused obesity prevention. The purpose of this report is to report on how school based healthy weight initiatives can trigger the adoption of unhealthy behaviours for some children through clinical case descriptions of four patients presenting to two pediatric tertiary care eating disorder programs in Southern Ontario.”

For instance, a 2007 study on the effects of a school-based nutrition and physical fitness program reports that less than half of girls in the program were reported to engage in disordered eating than those in the control group who weren’t in a program – but the study relied on self-reported data from the girls in question. While it’s possible that the program had a positive effect on disordered eating – it is equally possible that the students in the nutrition program had learned not to reveal their true behavior.

The paper goes on to suggest a different goal for improving the health of all children:

“Moderating and mediating effects of other environmental, relational, and motivational factors that affect health outcomes…the indices used to measure health should also be broadened in prevention trials so as to accurately capture positive health outcomes such as engagement/enthusiasm for physical activity, adoption of attitudes that could influence life-long patterns of physical activity, benefits of physical activity that extend beyond weight, such as improved blood pressure and glucose tolerance, heightened energy, greater attention and readiness to learn, self-confidence, and protection against the adoption of risky behaviors (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005Neumark-Sztainer, et al., 2006). “

In other words, instead of placing the focus solely on the symptom of weight or body fat, preventative health measures should focus outside children’s bodies to make sure they have the tools they need in order to maintain good health. We should be teaching children that a lifelong healthy relationship with our body begins with enjoying physical activity in its own right, not solely as a tool for weight loss, but as a tool for overall healthy living.

Filed under: Food News

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