08/18/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

A Back-to-School Message: Emphasize Childhood Health, Not Obesity


Children's Healthcare of Atlanta released a powerful anti-obesity PSA showing a man suffering a heart attack in the ER, which then progresses to an intense flashback to what food choices and activities led to this event. During the PSA you see the man's first person view as an adult, teenager and child. This includes failed attempts to be healthy, food choices of soda, fast food and him choosing to play video games instead exercising. Additionally, the video ends with the mom of the child literally shoving French fries into the kid's mouth.

I've been mulling over what to make of the PSA since I watched it. On the one hand, the video is very well done, raises awareness about childhood obesity (over 3 million views on YouTube) and highlights what medical issues chronic consumption of unhealthy food can lead to. Obesity does increase your risk for developing many chronic diseases.

In comparison, the always-insightful Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote, "If guilt or shame had any lasting impact on weight or behavior the world would be skinny." This video tells parents that they are making their kids fat and should be ashamed. The PSA does not touch on obesity issues such as the economics, cultural norms, biochemical factors, or a lack of nutrition education in schools. This PSA also insinuates that only obese children need to eat better and exercise more.

Parents do play a role in helping to prevent obesity and can improve their children's health; however, the blame should not be only on them. Again, as Dr. Freedhoff highlighted, "Childhood obesity is a symptom of a broken environment. Kids haven't changed, the world around them has."

Through my nutrition fieldwork, I've witnessed obese children at school be ostracized by specific interventions. Obese children wrangled up into a classroom to eat lunch and have a nutrition class, with strict supervision to make sure they ate their vegetables. Or public health presentations were the obese child was cherry picked out to give a speech about a healthy school intervention. Obese children are told constantly that they need to eat better. While normal weight children learn that they can eat whatever they want since their skinny.

Just because your child is at a normal BMI does not mean that it is healthy for them to consume whatever food they want. Contrary to popular belief, your child can develop chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes later in life, even if they do not become obese.

Young athletes are also usually left out of the conversation about healthy eating. What happens when they don't have the strict schedule of playing organized sports? Kids can't outrun their forks forever.

This focus just on BMI holds back many larger-scale changes to our environment and policies too. As Andy Bellatti emphasized, "Until we can have a national conversation about health -- specifically, how it is affected by our food systems, environment, and politics -- instead of weight, it will be hard to make the case for sound policy that promotes our well-being, regardless of our numbers on the scale." Especially when a policy impacts children, such as the new school food regulations.

I'm still saddened that the simple concept of feeding children the healthiest meal possible at school has turned into a political debate. New school lunch regulations should not be thought about as a weight management diet, but a roadmap for health for each student involved. Breakfast, lunch and snacks at school allow us as a nation to demonstrate to millions of children each day what nutritious food looks like.

Just as we don't expect parents to know the proper techniques to teach math or science for their children, school lunches can also help lead the conversation on proper food choices back home. Again, parents should not be blamed for a lack of nutrition education or cooking knowledge. This is part of a cycle of multiple generations with no nutrition education and shifting cultural norms and environments which favor unhealthy food. Why would we expect parents to know the best practices to feed their children if no one has taught them how to?

As a nation, we need to accept that we caused this health problem together. No positive impact can be accomplished by putting blame on individual families. At the end of the day, all parents want their children to grow up as healthy as possible. Food plays a crucial role in obtaining that goal.

We can simplify our children's health by a number on a scale and focus just on those kids who register as obese. Or, we can make this problem about childhood health and help everyone to realize the importance of good nutrition.