Jamie Oliver, the British chef and healthy eating advocate, recently delivered a letter, signed by several members of parliament, to British Prime Minister Theresa May calling for a war on childhood obesity. Some nutritionists, however, are actually calling his efforts a war on children’s bodies.
In an open letter of their own, a group of nutritionists and dietitians wrote to Oliver today (June 6), asking him to reframe his campaign as a way to increase healthy lifestyles instead of fixating on weight as the only indicator of health. Their recommendations are based on their professional experience working with disordered eating, as well as research from the World Health Organization that found that children who were exposed to shaming language surrounding obesity were more likely to feel stigmatized and less likely to improve their health as a result.
“We know that children are, of course, particularly vulnerable to the effect of weight stigma,” Laura Thomas, PhD, RNutr, said in a phone interview. “What we’ve called for in the letter, and what I’d like to see are for these messages to be framed in a way that is either weight neutral or weight inclusive.”
Dr. Thomas and her co-signers are not advocating that children in the UK, or anyone for that matter, sit on the couch watching Peppa Pig, snacking on Percy Pigs. Instead, she cited research finding that public health campaigns that oversimplify obesity lead to unintended consequences—and may even increase obesity while making the issue more intractable for people who are overweight. “We’d like a focus on health improvement rather than weight management or weight loss,” she said.
Weight stigma and body dissatisfaction, dieting, and being subjected to weight-related bullying— especially from family—are all strong predictors for developing an eating disorder, the nutritionists say. “Not everyone who goes on a diet will develop an eating disorder, but almost everyone who has an eating disorder has been on a diet,” Dr. Thomas said.
This is not the first time Oliver has been charged with oversimplifying the complex interplay of food, politics, class, and health. In 2009 he filmed a reality television show called Food Revolution in Huntington, West Virginia, a town deemed the least healthy place in the US. A similar show that aired in the UK in 2005 resulted in a substantial investment in school lunches from the government and a ban on fat and sodium-laden foods, such as Turkey Twizzlers.
In West Virginia, students stopped eating his rainbow salad with creamy dressing after the cameras left. The food-service director for the district, despite having been made into the show’s villain, capitalized on Oliver’s momentum and overhauled the food in a way that local children at least tolerate, though her efforts may be undermined by federal cuts to school lunch.
Dr. Thomas says that the goal of the letter is to highlight the the effects of weight stigma to improve overall pubic health. “We don’t want this to be a divisive conversation,” she said. “We both have the same interest at heart, which is to look after and protect children’s health.”