A Smart Incentive or Obesity Persecution?

French diet guru Pierre Dukan is urging his government to give extra marks in school for a healthy BMI. The Telegraph reports:

“Obesity is a real public health problem that is rarely – if at all – taken into account by politicians,” Mr Dukan told newspaper Le Parisien ahead of the book’s launch.

Mr Dukan said his education plan would be “a good way to sensitise teenagers to the need for a balanced diet.”

He denied it would punish overweight children, saying: “There is nothing wrong with educating children about nutrition. This will not change anything for those who do not need to lose weight. For the others, it will motivate them.”

This reminds me of the fitness test the University of Chicago administers to all incoming undergraduates, and the rampant cheating it inspires. The “punishment” for failing the fitness test was P.E. classes through your first year. So on the one hand, you had those who would try to trick the fitness test (these tips are traded on message boards before school starts, one being holding the heart rate meter at varying intensities to trick it) in order to place out of gym classes. On the other hand, you had students who wanted to take the P.E. classes, trying to game their way into them, since those who fail the fitness test have priority status into all gym classes.

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  1. Amber says:

    I work with obese youth on a regular basis. They know that they are obese/overweight. They are aware of what a healthy lifestyle entails. The problem lies in the lack of healthy options in school lunches, lack of parental cooperation, and limited access to exercise equipment. Heavier kids don’t want to try out for sports because it can be intimidating. Many kids skip breakfast, go to school, eat lunch there, and go home after school to take-away dinners their working parent(s) bring home or have to make themselves. If we are going to grade someone, it should be the parents.

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    • James says:

      “Heavier kids don’t want to try out for sports…”

      But “sports” of the school team sort you’re apparently thinking of as an exercise option really make very little contribution to physical fitness. Indeed, it’s often just the opposite: coaches will have the team members running, lifting weights, and doing other basic exercises in order to build the fitness needed to play the sport well.

      As for lack of exercise equipment, last I heard going for a good walk (known to be man’s best medicine since the days of Hippocrates) requires no equipment. Neither do pushups, situps, ab crunches, squat thrusts, or any of the other exercises I remember from boot camp. Likewise, yoga requires no equipment, nor do tai chi, Pilates, or many other proven fitness systems.

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  2. Scott says:

    This simply adds to the very profitable cognitive dissonance that the food industry and their sponsored “objective” researchers have made fortunes with for more than a century. For all of the fracas and fiasco that is published about overweight children, our primary education about such things comes from food advertisements, the central them of which is “consume more”. The result of the lack of competent and objective advisement from researchers, lack of unlobbied oversight from government agencies and the relentless push to sell more calories speaks for itself.

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  3. Enter your name... says:

    Pierre Dukan said, “This will not change anything for those who do not need to lose weight.”

    I say, “Pierre Dukan appears to be completely ignorant about eating disorders.”

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  4. Dan says:

    The BMI is a good tool for general use, but I think it’s unfair to issue a grade for it. Is an obese or overweight rating an automatic fail? What if a child improves their BMI rating through a semester of hard work but is still obese or overweight , did they earn an A or just an E for effort with a failing grade?

    I am all for an increase of health and nutrition education in school. I have been shocked repeatedly by the “average person’s” lack of general nutrition knowledge. A program that instructs children on basic nutrition, with hands on approach (say monitoring of caloric intake/expenditures, daily instruction on exercise, etc…) would be extremely beneficial for all kids, regardless of BMI score. That skinny 12 year old kid who never stops moving will eventually be an overworked, overweight, adult who sits in an office all day and thinks lean hot pockets and diet coke are health food.

    I remember lining up and getting callipered in Gym class in junior high. Kids who scored a high percentile were systematically teased by their peers, looked down on by the gym teacher, and given nothing but grief and embarrassment. No information, education, or support to improve, beyond a half hearted suggestion to turn the TV off. That kind of negative reinforcement didn’t work. I don’t think stamping them with a “scarlet letter” grade for being overweight will work either.

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  5. Howard Brazee says:

    I see two very similar groups of Righteous people wanting to control everybody else. (I use Righteous in its worst meaning):

    Food Nazis on the left, and sex Nazis on the right.

    Maybe they want to avoid temptation from doing stuff they are attracted to, maybe they want to save us from icky stuff. (or both – even Nazis are different).

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    • James says:

      You know, it is quite possible to like good food, even to be something of a “foodie”, and still maintain reasonable weight and good physical fitness. You just need to distinguish between quantity and quality. Indeed, I’ve found that few things are better at inducing an appreciation for one’s dinner than a day spent hiking, biking, skiing, etc.

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  6. Enrico says:

    Hello Levitt ,

    I stumbled on some academic research that proves that the Mediterranean diet has better cholesterol effects, as well as less weight regain than low fat and low carbs diets. It was conducted at the Nuclear Research Center Negev (Israel) and published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers found that at 6 years after study initiation, 67% of the participants had regained 2.7 kg of weight lost in the low-fat group, 1.4 kg in the Mediterranean group, and 4.1 kg in the low-carbohydrate group.

    That said, I think this is truly a perfect match for your French diet article
    here: http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/01/20/a-smart-incentive-or-obesity-persecution/

    If you’d like me to forward that info your way, let me know and I’ll gladly send it over.

    Kindest regards

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