As a nation, we are concerned about obesity. Strategies are being proposed daily to address the problem. Yet, the race to find ways to help people eat healthier and manage their weight leads to simplistic and sometimes harmful solutions.
Here is an example of another program that may want to consider if it is doing more harm than good. If you are a freshman at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, you will be stepping on the scale as soon as you arrive on campus (See the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education). If you have a BMI over 30, you will be required to take a course entitled "Fitness or Life." You can pass out of the class by reducing your BMI or by playing a sport.
This rule assumes a number of things. First, it suggests that students who have a BMI over 30 are unhealthy and that thinner students are healthy. As an eating disorder specialist, I have treated extremely thin, unhealthy students, some with such poor nutrition that they had developed bones equivalent to those of a fifty year old. One student who appeared to be slender and the picture of perfect health had an esophagus that was raw due to daily bingeing and purging. The rule also suggests that students with a BMI of over 30 are unhealthy, eating poorly and desire help. Thus, BMI is not always a very good indicator of health.
Couldn't this be seen as a form of weight discrimination? Telling people what they must do based on their weight? Also, could the incentive to pass out of the class lead to dangerous behavior in order to lose weight quickly? Not to mention the shame and embarrassment that the student is likely to suffer with being mandated to take such a class. Freshman year is well known as a prime time for eating disorders to emerge. It's a legitimate concern that being weighed publically and having your weight scrutinized could spark a series of triggers that lead to an eating disorder for those who are predisposed.
According to the Chronicle article, 15% of the entering student body have a BMI over 30. It's true that this is a matter of concern. Universities do have a duty to help students develop healthy bodies and minds. Only nurturing a student's mind isn't enough. Many students do enter college lacking a solid education on nutrition, exercise and self care. Why would you neglect this very important part of education that could literally save a student's life in five, ten or twenty years?
I applaud the idea of trying to encourage students to be healthier. Helping students to engage in mindful eating is a wonderful goal. Why not require all students, regardless of weight, to take the class? Or, provide an array of healthy, organic foods in the cafeterias? Or, ask all students to sign up for an exercise class? Perhaps make the faculty, who are primary role models for student, also take this class? Maybe they should consider all of these things? While well meaning in nature, we have to consider that obesity is incredibly complex and has multiple origins. Therefore, interventions are likely to be as complex in nature. It's difficult to create solid programs that work.
Higher education has a large task at hand. Helping students be healthier in mind and body is no easy job. Any suggestions for colleges and universities across the country? Do you think this new rule is helpful or harmful?