16 Oct 2016

Researchers urge rethink over anti-obesity efforts

12:58 pm on 16 October 2016

Initiatives to combat obesity could inadvertently be causing more harm to those who they're trying to help, researchers say.

Lunch box.

Researchers are concerned about messaging targeting obesity in schools. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Auckland University researcher Darren Powell says government initiatives designed to target obesity problems might be creating an environment where children are fat shamed, ostracised, teased and bullied.

Dr Powell told Sunday Morning fat people were often talked about as unhealthy, immoral, lazy and a drain on the economy, and that language could be more damaging than the size of their body.

He said Ministry of Health data showed there had been no significant increase in the levels of childhood obesity over the past five years.

Dr Powell's fellow researcher, sociology PhD candidate George Parker, told Sunday Morning there had been a 'moral panic' in the media about obesity.

She said obesity could be seen as a red herring, because it tended to steer conversations toward personal responsibility and distracted from health issues and what to do about them.

Ms Parker said raising issues around weight with pregnant women or new mums was detrimental to health, rather than health promoting.

"I have interviewed women across the Auckland region who described distressing experiences of fat shaming and bullying in maternity care and the new months of mothering that really put them in a negative mindset.

"Women feeling anxious, and sometimes wanting to avoid maternity care."

Dr Powell said he was concerned about how health education was being framed in schools, and said it was no longer about fun and playing but focused solely on fatness.

"Sort of like this Biggest Loser type mentality."

Ms Parker said there was a young generation of extremely body conscious citizens and the direction of current health policies meant that would only get worse.

Dr Powell said there was not strong evidence to back up claims that this generation would have shorter lifespans than their parents.

He said a number of government initiatives aimed at targeting obesity ended up blaming individuals for their ill health.

"By just reducing someone's health and worth to essentially their BMI, or in most cases just how a person looks, isn't promoting anyone's well-being."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs