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Michelle Obama's Childhood Obesity Controversy

While her heart is in the right place, Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders.
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On the Today show, Michelle Obama discussed the cause, obesity among children, she has chosen to take on during her husband's presidency. We can applaud her for picking such a worthy cause. Helping children to eat well and take care of their bodies will help our future in many ways. It will reduce health care costs as well as allow people to live healthier and stronger lives. This goal is quite a large undertaking. Tackling obesity must take place on several different levels: changing school lunches, altering the fast food environment, educating parents, providing economic resources for obtaining healthy food all without blaming or alienating parents.

Her words have sparked some controversy. According to some eating disorder groups, Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders. She mentioned that she put her children on a diet after her pediatrician and their father felt they were getting "chubby." Words like "chubby" don't cause eating disorders but they are often a trigger to disordered eating behavior. Most eating disorder professional would strongly caution parents from using labels or prerogative words to describe their child's weight as this has lasting impacts on a child's self esteem. Also, putting kids on "diet" instead of focusing on healthy eating and exercise can be another trigger for eating disorder behaviors. Dieting is clearly not the answer. Michelle had some great suggestions on helping parents and their children eat healthier. Hopefully, it helps to draw awareness to what parents can do to help kids eat well and add exercise to their daily routine.

We also have to keep in mind that weight alone is not an indicator of a child's health. Children's weights dramatically vary and change particularly as they go through development stages, growth spurts and puberty. Instead of aiming for slimness, let's focus on a healthy lifestyle that includes mindful eating, access to healthy food and exercise.

Michelle's words drew a reaction from some of the leading organizations that work on eating disorder prevention and treatment like the American Academy of Eating Disorders, the Binge Eating Disorder Association and the Eating Disorder Coalition, and the International Association for Eating Disorders. They sent a letter outlining the potential danger of tackling "the war on obesity" without considering the potential impact on eating disorders. They have also offered their help and assistance to Michelle as she begins to tackle this cause.

Clearly, there are multiple causes of eating disorders that include biological, social and psychological factors. It seems like this discussion is a just another reminder that addressing any weight issue, whether eating too much or too little, is extremely complicated. However, it is a very important health issue for everyone. Eating disorders aren't just anorexia and bulimia. It includes binge eating disorder, which is linked with obesity.

We look forward to hearing more from Michelle. She is sure to gather a fantastic team of professionals to help to begin addressing childhood obesity. Thank you again for taking on this important cause.

The key is to work with these professional groups to find the latest scientific research that addresses the obesity issue cautiously without causing a wave of eating disorders. To see guidelines for Obesity Prevention Programs click here.

By Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating Mindfully.

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