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Dr. Mandy Golman Headshot

Are We the Biggest Losers?

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LITTLE GIRL LOOKING IN MIRROR
Cavan Images via Getty Images

Growing out of my work as a health educator and researcher over the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to speak at hundreds of schools and thousands of parents about instilling healthy eating attitudes and behaviors in their children. Parents ask the same questions every single time: "What if my daughter is obese?"

"How do I discuss her weight in a healthy way so she doesn't feel shame. Or should we feel shame?"

"How do I instill healthy habits yet not give my child an eating disorder?"

With anorexia as the third most chronic illness in teenage girls and 17 percent of children obese, these questions are not unique.

We have a hard time talking about weight with our children but yet as a society we can't turn away from it.

We can't stop watching shows like "The Biggest Loser." We watched in awe as Rachel Frederickson dropped 155 pounds and almost 60 percent of her body weight in six months.

The response was incredible and varied. Blogs exploded with shock and dismay at her somewhat skeletal look. She made the covers of both People and Us magazine with headlines that questioned the pace of the weight loss. Other said how great and healthy she looks now and to leave her alone.

This shows how confused and tortured this country is about weight and has many people, especially parents conflicted about how to talk about weight. I have found that some parents find talking to kids about weight as anxiety-provoking as talking to kids about sex.

Over half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys report using unhealthy weight control practices such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

Is it any wonder that in recent surveys, 80 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat and 60 percent of them would rather be dead then fat?

So what do I say to parents when they ask the questions above?

We need to acknowledge that extreme weight of any kind is unhealthy and that healthy habits -- exercise, good nutrition, a reasonable relationship with food -- are the most important thing whatever the number on the scale.

I also tell parents, "Stop talking about your body negatively. Stop talking negatively about other people's bodies. Period. "

Parents should not continually make negative comments about their own bodies or the bodies others, or obsessively weigh themselves, or talk about extreme diets. When children hear this, they internalize those messages. It profoundly effects how they feel about their own body.

Shaming doesn't work. In several studies, including those conducted by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project Eat (Eating among teens), a 5-year longitudinal study of 2,516 adolescents, shame- based weight loss strategies have demonstrated a reverse effect and actually resulted in weight gain and greater disordered eating behavior.

It also is possible to be fit and fat and healthy. In his book, Big Fat Lies, researcher Glen Gaessner argues that it is other key risk factors -- especially lack of exercise, not the excess weight -- that results in poor health.

We need a different approach. Teach someone to love their body and respect it at any shape or size, and then the healthy habits will follow. Neumark-Sztainer believes interventions that target healthy body image as well as healthy behaviors can result in benefits that protect against eating disorders and obesity.

While not all people that are overweight are unhealthy, it has to be acknowledged that many are. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese. And the reality is that overweight and/or obesity can be a factor in health concerns such as high blood pressure, greater risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Both ends of the spectrum -- either too thin or too overweight -- can be very unhealthy. However, the fat shaming and reported unhealthy weight loss practices demonstrated in shows like "The Biggest Loser" are not effective.

This is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It is time to end the disordered discussion around this issue. Rachel Frederickson's weight battle epitomizes the extreme behavior in relation to food that is so devastating in this country. That's what needs to be addressed. Let's stop watching the scale and defining others by it. Start by turning off The Biggest Loser.