Pandemic Fat-Phobia Does Not Support Public Health

Last week, British television host Jeremy Vine suggested schools should weigh students in September and again in the spring as a means of helping them monitor and shed quarantine weight gain.

Vine’s incendiary tweet follows U.K. policies enacted last month to “beat COVID-19” by encouraging weight loss. The British government has restricted advertisements for certain foods and mandated calorie counts on menus, and the National Health Service is promoting membership in WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers).

A similar effort had already been proposed in one U.S. town and received well-deserved backlash. We would like to offer some words of warning before any additional weight-focused policies start to spread.

[READ: Dangers of Pandemic Fat Talk.]

Weight and COVID-19

The links between weight and health are complicated — really complicated. Interpreting higher weight as an independent risk factor for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality ignores the complex relationship between an individual’s body size and vulnerability to the novel coronavirus.

Poverty, racism and weight stigma are just some of the factors that can influence health outcomes, including COVID-19 complications. Instead of using limited resources to fight a pandemic by encouraging weight loss, we should invest in proven tactics: personal protective equipment, testing and contact tracing. Further, if a public health campaign is to be waged, it must focus on evidence-based recommendations: masks, hand-washing and social distancing.

[READ: Discrimination in COVID-19 Treatment.]

Don’t Weigh Kids at School

During the pandemic, schools are being asked to address public health in new ways, and the stakes have never been higher. Pandemic policies have literal life-and-death consequences for students, faculty, staff and their families. Monitoring student weight offers no clear benefits and may increase the risk of depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

As child psychologists sound the alarm about students’ mental health and social-emotional development, a focus on body weight seems particularly dangerous. Even pre-pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questioned the effectiveness of weighing students. Larger cultural fears about weight have trickled down to kids, for whom weight gain is not only normal but necessary for healthy development. Growth during childhood — particularly the rapid weight gain around puberty — needs to be normalized, not stigmatized.

[READ: How to Manage Eating Disorders During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Focus on the Real Health Hazards

Since the 1990s, public health concerns have fixated on the so-called “obesity epidemic,” pathologizing body size rather than focusing on health-promoting behaviors and policies, such as reducing weight stigma, improving environmental quality and addressing social determinants of health.

Decades of research have shown that a weight-focused approach has not proven effective at lowering body weight or improving health long term. Our current pandemic serves as a stark reminder of what a global health threat really looks like. So as our treatment and prevention efforts are underway to halt the spread of COVID-19, we must be vigilant against attempts to redirect attention and resources toward misguided weight-loss programs.

The Illusion of Control in an Anxiety-Provoking Time

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising in the midst of a global pandemic — when so much feels out of our control — we’re tempted to try to control body size. Quarantine weight gain should be among the least of our worries, and yet focusing on weight or our diet can offer a false sense of reassurance. To lower COVID-19 risk, we know what to do: Communities, schools and individuals must reject fat-phobic fear-mongering and instead follow proven disease-prevention guidelines that truly support health.

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