Viral Obesity Video Gone Wild

A day or two ago a friend of mine shared a video with me.  It was posted on a dog food delivery blog that features any topic under the sun that might go viral–but it’s everywhere.  The sensational title used on the blog was:  “SHOCKING Commercial Will Change How You and Your Children Eat.  EVERYONE should see this!”

Less than 24 hours later it became a topic of conversation in two other health related groups I belong to.  It sounds like it is being passed around all over FB and the internet with most people nodding their heads at the terrible state of our collective eating habits.

The video shows a fat man on a gurney who just had a heart attack and flashes back through his activity and eating life since babyhood showing you what supposedly paved the way to his heart attack.  The flashback illustrates the following:

— mom giving him juice in a sippy cup
— mom feeding him french fries when he refuses other foods
— Eating birthday cake on more than one birthday.
— Eating foods like corn dog, pancakes, fast food
— Giving the apple on his lunch tray to a friend.
— Feeling out of breath during PE
— Hoarding/sneaking candy and being shamed by his parents
— His pediatrician telling his Mom “You need to make a change”, but no support, resources, pamphlets given beyond that warning.
— His wife buying him a treadmill
— His doctor warning him he’s on a path to diabetes

In the end, there is no solution given, no suggestions for how someone should change the way they feed their kids to prevent this terrible heart attack with which they are scaring you.  Only a website is flashed on the screen.

I noticed three big feeding issues, but the solution implied is wrong. Or without further discussion the solution most people jump to is wrong.

1) Mom is confronted with a ‘picky’ eater and in her (very normal) fear t
o get the child to eat something, she  caters to what the child already likes (french fries) further entrenching a very limited palate. The implied solution in the video is that she is weak and wimpy for giving him french fries. She should instead never give what the child likes or starve the child into eating ‘healthy’ food because obviously french fries are an incredibly irresponsible choice for a child.

The thing is, picky eating really scares some parents and makes them feel inadequate with their parenting. In turn they respond either with pressure and control (eat this or else) or give in and only feed kids what they are already wiling to eat.  Many parents already don’t trust their child’s drive to eat and grow, they don’t trust their child’s appetite and ability to self-regulate intake based on need.  They don’t trust their child’s ability to learn to like the family food over time.  It is this very lack of understanding of normal child development with eating and lack of trust that leads parents to do seemingly crazy things with feeding.  A fear mongering video doesn’t help parents. Parents need help and support and education on what is ‘normal’ for kids of that age and how to cope–NOT guilt tripped about french fries. There are very extreme cases (no
t typical picky eating) of kids with sensory (or other) issues who literally will not eat more than a handful of foods. It’s not the parents’ fault…it is the way these kids are and these kids simply need more opportunity to learn to like new foods in a no pressure way (read: lots of time).
  This won’t happen when parents are scared into changing their child’s eating in this moment because of more fear.  And even when scaring parents works to motivate change, this video does nothing to show what changes need to be made or how.

A better way to feed (for kids of all ages and sizes) is to follow a Division of Responsibility: be responsible for choosing good food, setting regular mealtimes, keep mealtimes at the table, and let your children be in charge of how much (if anything) they eat from the selections on the table.  It seems overly simplistic, but it works to create competent eaters in the long term.  Eaters who value meal times and honor their feelings of hunger and fullness without being controlled by food.

2) The child in this video is rewarded with candy in school for his good work.  Rewarding kids with candy/food is generally accepted that this is a bad idea by health professionals. But the implied message is that you just change the food to ‘healthy’ stuff or that candy itself is bad.

3) The child in this video is shown sneaking and hoarding candy in his room. The implied message is that hoarding is about some character deficit in the child or that parents aren’t strict enough or some other wrong-headed idea. Very likely that child was being restricted and constantly micromanaged around his eating in the name of good nutrition or weight management. Kids who hoard, sneak food, or regularly overeat often are being overly restricted with food at home and this is their coping response to what feels like scarcity.  It is a vicious cycle.  The answer isn’t to be more restrictive but less restrictive without being laissez faire.  It involves general good feeding practices rather than weight loss focused strategies.

The message is usually: Feed your kids better, don’t give them junk!  Definitely don’t let them get fat and if they do, control them or you’re a bad parent!  Regardless of the original intent of this video, it is now being passed around to support the same ideas people already believe in the back of their minds: the only way to health is to be really controlling with food and hold on to a rigid black/white view of food.

But good feeding is not about that. And focusing on weight and control makes parents think they need to be overly restrictive or give up because they see over-restriction as ineffective (which it is) and harsh (yes). And there is lots of research to support the idea that dieting actually makes things worse for kids.

This is why I don’t like scare advertisement like this.  As far as marketing goes, it does garner plenty of attention.  It hits emotional buttons.  So if that is the goal of marketing, A+ — but given that most marketing aims at behavior change (buy our product, subscribe to our service!), I would say that this video fails.  It ends with “There’s still time to reverse the unhealthy habits our kids take into adulthood. We’ll show you how.”  Then a link to a healthy living website created by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHA).  The same organization that created similarly emotionally-loaded fat shaming posters not too long ago. Maybe, maybe if the commercial went on to give positive messages about how parents can cope with the fears incited by the video and how there is a way to feed kids that is realistic and good for all family members, then perhaps it would be useful.  But it doesn’t do that.  It provides a link.  According to child feeding expert, dietitian and social worker, Ellyn Satter,

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is a opportunistic organization that made the corporate and marketing decision to blatantly seize on obesity hysteria and fear of death as a way of attracting customers and making financial profit. Very sad. They used to [teach] DOR based child weight intervention. This is such a terrible video that words escape me. Probably the most overriding terribleness is the weight bigotry.” 

I agree that this video is irresponsible.  Someone could argue that sometimes you have to be extreme to reach people.  And perhaps some parents and children were helped because of this video.  This organization’s website actually teaches some useful feeding strategies and gives some sound advice, but it takes an awful lot of searching the site to get past the general idea that if we just feed our kids ‘healthy’ food and avoid ‘bad’ food we will avoid all health ills and keep everyone thin.  What about the people who only saw the video and didn’t dig into the website advertised at the end?  The potential collateral damage does not jive with one of healthcare’s main motto: first do no harm.

I wonder how many people who watch this video actually will spend time on CHA’s site to find solutions and how many people will simply watch and strengthen their conviction that being fat is a death sentence, parents are idiots, and fat people are lazy gluttons?  One blogger and a leader in a support group for parents of extremely selective eaters mentioned:

It never occurred to me to look at the website after watching this or that there was any hope for a different outcome. If the intent is to change the outcome of being a fat man having a heart attack… or is it to illustrate that only fat people die? Or is it to demonstrate how physicians are biased and unknowledgeable about weight and feeding? Or was it that birthday cake and apples are ultimately deadly….”

The message is not 100% clear.

Here is the video if anyone is interested.  I welcome your feedback.  What is your reaction after watching this?  Obesity Scare video

Posted by Adina
August 12, 2014

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