Obesity Prevention and Eating Disorder Prevention

April 26, 2010 Laura Collins

When I ask people to care about eating disorders, it is very common for them to come back with "but obesity is such a big problem." I'm not sure why the two things are seen as opposites, but I think we'd benefit from taking a different look at both issues that may lead us to see some common goals and a common approach.

Obesity is just a description of a weight class. It tell us nothing about the health conditions of that person. It doesn't mean the person has an eating disorder, though it often does. Being underweight is not an eating disorder either. People with eating disorders often do lose weight, but may be average weight. Underweight is also just a crude measure of physical state and not a diagnosis: many things cause weight loss.

Obesity Prevention and Eating Disorder Prevention: Do We Know How?

We talk a lot about "obesity prevention" and "eating disorder prevention," but if you examine the evidence for both concepts you'll probably note, as I do, that we really know very little about how to prevent obesity or eating disorders. The only thing we can agree on is that both are complicated issues and that society has strong feelings about both. A common factor: the belief that people choose their weight and can decide to choose another weight.

Ridicule and prejudice against larger people is rampant and vicious out there. I am constantly shocked at how otherwise nice people feel free to speak disparagingly and condescendingly about, and even to, people based on their body size. I imagine this is much like people unthinkingly behaved about people of a difference race in earlier times - reflexive and unquestioned bias.

smallbigdogChanging the Goal to Health Instead of Weight

One way to stop pitting obesity against eating disorders is to realize that they aren't opposites. There is a lot of evidence out there that "obesity prevention" does little good but does cause increased prejudice and, yes, disordered eating. The kind of measures people take to lose weight are usually extreme and unhealthy and futile.

Healthy eating and exercise, on the other hand, are good for everyone. Instead of basing our eating and activity on our weight, we can nourish ourselves and be active according to the needs of our bodies - that's not dieting it is self-knowledge. Behaving in a healthy and balanced way may affect our weight or it may not. But for those with eating disorders - a mental illness that makes it difficult to meet one's nutritional needs - it isn't enough to say eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Eating disorders require specialized treatment and not just weight management. Again, let's get off the weight and back to health: mental and physical.

For good advice on this issue, I enthusiastically recommend: "AED Guidelines for Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs" and "Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents: What Can Health Care Providers Do?"

APA Reference
Collins, L. (2010, April 26). Obesity Prevention and Eating Disorder Prevention, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Laura Collins

Laura Collins
April, 29 2010 at 11:57 pm

I appreciate your comment, Cameron. You and I are agreeing: it is about health and not weight. The two can, and should, be disconnected.
People think if we stop dieting and worrying about weight that we will all just eat donuts and become morbidly obese. I think our dieting and weight focus is actually INCREASING our donuts and obesity. By emphasizing health, as you are, we all win.

April, 28 2010 at 8:26 pm

I see your point but I find myself not agreeing with all that you say.
Children need to know that they are eating the wrong sorts of food, the parents of the children need to know that they ar eating the wrong sorts of food and the only way that you know you are eating the wrong sorts of food is by monitoring your body's fat content.
I am overweight, nearly 40, I never ate a green vegetable until later on in life, everything that was off my menu Salad (boring), vegetables, eggs, fish, mushrooms, the only fruit I ate was apples etc etc. No sports as a kid either.
But for some reason as a kid I loved snickers, kit-kats, Mc Donalds. There needs to be engagement by the Parents, the schools everyone, please I understand what you are saying, but getting kids into healthy habits for life is what its all about and if the only way you can find out who is at risk is by testing then i say test away, I wish someone had picked my eating up as a kid.
look at this;
kind regards,

April, 28 2010 at 12:46 pm

This message needs to get out there as much as possible. The First Lady's campaign to "end childhood obesity" terrifies me, especially when I hear plans of measuring a child's BMI in school health classes and reporting it to their's exactly that kind of focus on weight and measurements that drove me to obsess about my body and my diet and eventually develop a full-blown eating disorder. Can you imagine being a child who always gets top grades, going into a health class and having a BMI considered "overweight" or "obese"? Getting that kind of message in a classroom feels like being graded, and it would be absolutely ludicrous to grade a student on their body size. But that's the message that some students will take away from any class that tells them what their weight should be. Teaching children healthy habits is definitely a crucial task for parents and educators, but we need to get the focus off of appearance and weight.

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