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Officialdom’s bullying of so-called fat kids

The branding of a perfectly normal 11-year-old boy as ‘overweight’ shows how mad the obesity panic has become.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Tom Halton is 11 years old. He is an active boy. According to a report on BBC News, he ‘swims, goes ballroom dancing, plays cricket and football, and goes trials biking with his father and brother every weekend’. Yet according to the UK Department of Health, Tom is overweight.

After Tom took part in a national scheme to measure children’s weight, Barnsley Primary Care Trust (PCT) – the local healthcare provider in the part of the north of England where Tom lives – wrote to his parents to tell them that because he is five feet one inch tall (1.55metres) and weighs seven stone 10 pounds (49kg), their son is overweight. Tom’s mother, Tracey Halton, said her son had been shocked by the letter, and when he later weighed himself and found that he was even heavier than stated in the letter, he refused to eat his dinner. His father, Dan, described the letter as ‘scaremongering’.

That seems a pretty reasonable assessment. Tom’s body mass index (BMI) is just 20.4. If Tom were an adult, he would have to pile on another 11 kilogrammes (about 24 pounds) before he became ‘overweight’ – that is, before he reached a BMI of 25. Even then, that would be a long way from being any threat to his health. By any sensible standard, Tom would seem to be a slim, healthy boy. Yet the PCT letter, according to his dad, suggests he is heading for a life of ill-health thanks to his lousy upbringing. ‘Not only does it say you are fat, but there is a possibility you are going to get cancer, type-2 diabetes and heart disease – and that also reflects on me as a parent’, said Dan Halton.

Barnsley PCT told BBC News it was simply following national policy. This is true, and the real problem is that this national policy of weighing children and monitoring their BMIs is likely to cause far more harm than good.

Firstly, the whole problem of obesity is greatly exaggerated. A small proportion of the population is so fat that it can become a serious impediment both to their mobility and their general health. For the vast majority of people, however, from those at the bottom end of the ‘normal’ weight range through to those categorised as mildly obese, body weight make little or no practical difference to their lives or life expectancies. Defining the majority of the population as ‘overweight’ – and, by definition, ill – is absurd and has no basis in evidence.

Secondly, even if body weight were a more serious problem than the evidence suggests, the fact that a child at a particular stage of his or her development qualifies as ‘overweight’ does not necessarily mean that they will become a fat adult. As Professor Jeya Henry of Oxford Brookes University told spiked last year: ‘There is no evidence that an overweight young person, whether six, seven or eight years old, will become an overweight adult.’ For a whole host of reasons – from normal changes in hormones and body make-up through to personal lifestyle changes made while growing up – chubby kids can become slim adults and vice versa.

In this light, suggesting to parents and children that puppy fat is going to lead to an early, corpulent death will create anxiety to no useful purpose, while also potentially screwing up a growing person’s attitude to food. Worse, it provides yet another excuse for children – who can be less than generous to their peers – to pick on the ‘fat kids’. Now children can stick the boot in, both verbally and physically, knowing that the basis of their abuse is ‘official’. The Department of Health probably won’t make a single child any healthier as a result of its policy, but it sure will make many kids a hell of a lot more miserable.

The implications for parents are just as bad. If young Janet, John, Kylie and Craig are getting fat, the question that naturally follows is: who’s to blame? By sending a letter to parents whenever a child is found to be overweight, the local health authorities are basically saying: ‘You are killing your kids.’ This is likely to elicit one of two reactions from parents: either bowing to the mighty wisdom of our health guardians – leading to a very unhealthy medicalisation of children’s lives – or, more likely, a relationship of constant distrust between parents and the medical profession, where adults are reduced to naughty children concealing anything from doctors and health visitors that might provoke yet another lifestyle lecture. Either way, the relationship of trust between medics and patients will be compromised, and parental autonomy will be undermined.

The authoritarians in Whitehall are desperate to create a relationship of dependency between them and us. Health issues have become a favourite vehicle for this. Unfortunately, they have found time and again that when they lecture adults about changing our wicked ways – all that smoking, drinking and eating that these petty dictators disapprove of – we do become worried, but we also reveal another of our bad habits: a tendency to carry on regardless. But when it comes to children, these guilt trips have a bit more purchase, which is why our health guardians love policies such as sending ‘fat kid’ letters to parents.

The new health secretary Andrew Lansley rightly noted last week that such lectures don’t achieve their supposed aims and instead foster anxiety and resentment. But it’s a bad sign when the prime minister himself, David Cameron, appoints Kris Murrin – presenter of the vomit-inducing TV fearfest Honey We’re Killing the Kids – to a senior role in his advisory circle. We will have to wait and see if the government really will move away from the parent-bashing, panic-mongering of New Labour towards something different. In the meantime, let’s keep reminding them that the fat panic is just that – a panic – and that parents rather than ministers or self-appointed health watchdogs are best placed to work out what is best for their children.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons argued that what we put in our kids’ lunch boxes is nobody’s business. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids and declared that childhood obesity is not a form of abuse. Professor Jeya Henry objected to the redefinition of puppy fat in terms of obesity. Peter Marsh asked what’s behind the sensationalist child obesity headlines. Dan Travis thought giving children pedometers was a step in the wrong direction. Josie Appleton said there’s more to childhood than counting calories. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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