Weight is the Least of It

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When it comes to youth wellness, we’ve been having the wrong conversation.

In a culture increasingly plagued by obesity, we’ve been obsessed with thinness. Granted, healthy eating and exercise are part of the message. But the stated goal is most often weight reduction, and we place responsibility squarely on the individual.

Nowhere is this more clear than with adolescents, who may be the most vulnerable to the flood of messages from print, TV and the Internet, to say nothing of peer pressure. And they’re at the stage when lifelong habits are learned.

At California Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness (CANFit), we believe in a different conversation. While the mainstream culture stresses thinness or weight loss, we stress health at every size. The mainstream focuses on individual responsibility; we focus on community responsibility. We also focus on cultural specificity and on public investment, not private funding.

Wouldn’t it be better if all adolescents, no matter what their income level or ethnicity, knew what foods they needed to stay healthy, and knew how to use their bodies to keep fit throughout life? Wouldn’t it be better if our communities, regardless of income levels or cultural backgrounds, supported youth in this endeavor?

Too often, after-school and other youth development programs ignore healthy eating and physical activity. When they are addressed, it is often with outdated ideas, or with the youth workers buying into the mass media attitude that thinness is the goal and that participating in competitive, team sports is the norm. Such efforts usually don’t take into account the youths’ cultural and economic realities.

It’s an easy mistake to make. All of us – especially adolescents, who account for almost 40 percent of the family food dollar – are surrounded by mixed messages: “Be sedentary and load up on high-fat, fast and processed foods. But be thin.”

Youth get no alternative messages, at least none that are presented in acceptable or realistic ways, especially for low-income adolescents. Nor are youth involved in developing the right messages themselves.

Most of the youth we work with at CANFit don’t have access to affordable healthy foods. They don’t have the knowledge and skills to plan, buy and prepare nutritious meals. Nevertheless, they are often responsible for preparing about a dozen meals for themselves and their families each week.

As for physical activity, physical education is being cut back in more and more schools, and the neighborhood streets and parks are often dangerous.

So let’s forget about weight. Let’s focus instead on health – healthy eating and daily physical activity. That may mean changing the foods we offer, making sure that there’s more to do than sports and video games, and interrupting teasing and put-downs that focus on weight.

And let’s not make the mistake of thinking and preaching that this is only an individual responsibility. Sure, individual choice matters. But healthy living requires a community effort that recognizes the need to change the environment. The youth, their families and the community have to be engaged in planning and implementing drives to improve eating and physical activity habits. It is critical that youth and families be part of the creation and ownership of ideas.

Youth programs and local residents must support efforts to get neighborhood corner and convenience stores to stock more fresh produce. They must help to develop physical activity opportunities through such actions as grooming playgrounds, starting walking clubs and creating culturally appropriate classes like hip-hop dance and salsa.

Youth programs must be culturally specific. Every racial or ethnic group has its own approach to food and its own preferences. One size does not fit all.

One of CANFit’s projects was the Promoting Healthy Activities Together Campaign, a/k/a P.H.A.T. Targeting 10- to 14-year-old African-Americans participating in community centers, after-school programs and other organized settings in the San Francisco Bay Area, P.H.A.T. set out to improve knowledge, attitudes, community norms and behaviors about nutrition and physical activity. The model has been adapted and replicated with other cultural groups, including Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander youth.

P.H.A.T. used dance, emceeing and other hip-hop cultural elements to deliver messages about healthy eating and physical activity. Over a two-month period, more than 80 youth spent two to three hours a week with local hip-hop talent, incorporating their own nutrition and fitness messages into raps, artwork and hip-hop dance routines. These were later featured at a P.H.A.T. Community Showcase and in a P.H.A.T. video.

After one year, 67 percent of the programs reported continuing positive changes in youth behavior, including increased water consumption, less soda consumption, improved patterns of physical activity and healthier snack choices. All programs still included hip-hop dance, and many were offering more nutrition programming and healthier snacks.

So don’t focus only on weight. Focus on health, on the specific youths you work with, and on how the community and its organizations can help them.