Experts raise concern that school obesity-prevention programs may trigger eating disorders in children

It seems like the smartest option amid a sea of rising young waistlines: Introduce healthy eating curriculum as part of Canada’s nation-wide implementation of school obesity-prevention programs.

That means educating students about the importance of choosing vegetables, fruit, protein and complex carbohydrates to fuel their growing bodies instead of traditional teen staples like junk food and sugar.

But despite these good intentions, researchers are finding that the programs are causing “food neurosis” and eating disorders in children who used to never give calorie counting and weight loss a second thought.

“Healthy eating and weight initiatives have been incorporated into many schools to combat the growing obesity problem,” write researchers from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in a report.

“There is little research, however, on the effectiveness of these programs or any inadvertent harmful effects on children’s mental health.”

Some of these harmful effects include hospitalization for eating disorders.

The report cites examples of several children who ended up in the emergency room after restricting their food intake to near-starvation levels. One 13-year-old girl had to have her vital signs stabilized after she started exercising compulsively and cutting back on all fats – healthy and otherwise.

And it’s certainly not just the girls. A growing number of boys have also been taking the anti-obesity message to heart and suffering as a result.

Many of the children who engage in this disordered behaviour exhibit the classic signs of perfectionistic tendencies, says study author Dr. Leora Pinhas, who is also a child psychiatrist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and co-chairs a national think tank on child health.

“I’ve seen kids who had been the best student in their class and they were going to be ‘the best’ at this healthy lifestyle thing and so they did everything, and took it to the extreme,” she tells Postmedia News.

Particularly vulnerable are young girls who may accumulate some extra fat while their bodies transition through puberty.

Pinhas criticizes one the underlying messages of the obesity-prevention programs – that thin is in and heavier is bad.

“We live in a culture that stigmatizes fat people, and we’ve turned it into this kind of moralistic health thing,” she says.

In elementary schools “[t]hey tell parents, ‘If your child brings a granola bar with chocolate chips to school for their snack, they will be asked to put it away’… Imagine a child in Grade 1. What are we saying to that child? We’re telling that child that it’s better to go hungry than to have a chocolate chip.”

Though the study authors conclude there’s no “cause-and-effect” proof that the programs are causing disordered eating and neurosis, Pinhas feels the initiatives can be reconceived in less risky ways.

“If we want schools to do something to improve the health of children, why don’t we have a national lunch program that provides every single child in the school with a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch?”

What do you think? Should programs be refashioned to account for students who take the healthy eating message too far or should they be kept as-is despite these worrisome examples?