What the Disneyland Exhibit “Habit Heroes” Can Teach Us

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 9, 2012

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I’ve been wanting to write about the new exhibit in Disney World aimed at fighting the obesity epidemic since I heard about it — and now it’s already closed. Basically, Disney created Habit Heroes to positively influence kids with overweight kid characters like “The Glutton” and “Lead Bottom” fight healthy kid characters such “Will Power” and “Callie Stenics.”

The response from health experts was so negative that they finally closed up shop. But I’m not sure the lesson was learned.

There are many, many misconceptions about obesity

It’s not just this exhibit that has been questioned. Remember the book Maggie Goes on a Diet — and how about the Georgia’s Anti-obesity ad campaign where they tried to scare parents and kids into action (that one has stopped too!).

In every case the intention is good, but the execution is not. To me, this demonstrates that obesity is still sorely misunderstood by many — and that includes parents. I believe the biggest misconception is that the answer to excess weight always comes down to food. The answer is almost always to serve a healthy diet, decrease portions or lower carbs (or whatever the diet of the seasons is).

Treating the symptom not the cause
The way someone eats, and their subsequent weight, is simply a symptom of some deeper cause and discovering that deeper cause is key.

Consider Tommy, the boy who is on too healthy of a diet. There are no treats or much fat and he’s hungry. But his parents don’t want him to get bigger as his food obsession grows. In this case, not listening to the child (he’s hungry) is the problem.

And what about the families dealing with food insecurity. The kids don’t know when the next meal is coming and the parents aren’t worried about nutrition because when food is truly scarce — you just want your child fed. So the problem has more to do with food insecurity than anything else.

And then there are the families that are so stressed out that they put food and reliable meals on the backburner — increasing the likelihood of mindless eating and a missing out on an appreciation for wholesome family meals. Reducing stressors would be key in this situation — freeing up room for dietary changes.

It’s not just one thing
In this WebMD post I describe several factors that have helped tip the obesity epidemic, with only one of the five things being about food. Because it’s not just what we eat that has changed but how we eat and how we live. When food is the only answer available we are bound to miss the solution.

Fixing obesity is not about willpower and the cause is not laziness and we should know by now that shaming kids and adults is the wrong thing to do. The environment in which children grow up matters with the home, and parental guidance, being the most important. But parents need guidance as each child and situation is unique, which is what we will provide in Fearless Feeding.

Food and nutrition advice is important but it’s not going to work if the underlying cause is still rearing its ugly head. I just think we need to look at this problem with a broader lens because the narrow one we’ve been using simply isn’t working.

What do you think? Did you happen to see the exhibit in Disneyworld?

More reviews of the exhibit
Weighty Matters
Dances with Fat
The Feeding Doctor
And one Huffington post review that thinks this is all an over-reaction

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Julia Moravcsik March 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I’m sure that there are a few cases where obesity is not caused by overeating. But focusing on the few exceptions ignores the huge trend of obesity increasing over the decades.

Timmy is on “too healthy of a diet” with no “treats” and low fat food. Well, this is the diet that all humans were on up until this past century! It’s a mistake to think that our current diet is the “normal” or “natural” one and if you stray too far from it, your child will be forced to overeat because he’s hungry. And how common is this? I don’t know of any kid who is starving because his parents put him on too “healthy” of a diet? I’m sure they exist, but they’re rare enough so that I’ve never met one. It’s not a common enough cause of obesity to even make the statistical cut.

Food insecurity. In my grandparents’ day this was ubiquitous. And people weren’t obese. Once again, the obesity epidemic is unlikely to be caused by this. I’d love to redistribute income in this country so that poor people aren’t so poor, but I doubt whether the obesity epidemic would disappear if this happened. In fact, one theory of the obesity epidemic is that people are richer now so they can spend more of their disposable income on recreational food.

Then, families who are too stressed to feed their kids. I don’t really know what to make of this, but people had many more real stresses in the “old days” (are my crops going to fail?) and every family served meals 3 times a day.

What the Disney exhibit really triggered is the idea that it’s not nice to caricature overweight kids. And as a result, people ran to the rescue of these kids by coming up with reasons why it wasn’t their fault that they were fat. But by excusing their responsibility, we also take away their ability to change. We take away their ability to transcend the poor eating habits that their parents are foisting on them, and feel some power and self-respect. Can’t we just try to change this nation’s unhealthy healthy eating habits without making fun of overweight kids?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Julia — Thanks for your comment. I can tell you that the most often asked question I get from parents is that their child is obsessed with food. I often find they are restricting in response to a big appetite/higher than average weight because they are afraid of the obesity epdemic. Is this every child? Of course not. This is more common in higher incomes households. Research shows that restriction is linked to overweight in kids and eating in the absense of hunger (overeating). This doesn’t mean it’s the cause but it is related in certain cases.

And food insecurity has changed especially given the cheap food available but it’s difficult for me to talk to families about healthy eating when they have bigger concerns. Also research shows a neglectful feeding style is related to overeating/high weight as kids are not being fed reliable meals. More info on feeding styles here http://justtherightbyte.com/2010/10/whats-your-feeding-style/

And there are many kids who are eating calorically dense foods that their parents buy for them but it’s not just the food but how they are fed. Most of these families do not put food as the priority for different reasons. Some I talked to never learned to cook and other’s are so stressed they don’t want to fight their child’s requests. Others have their issues with food.

I’m not saying that obesity isn’t caused by overeating because it obviously is but the question is why? I believe there are many reasons why people/family/individuals may overeat and by looking at the big picture (and each case individually) we are more likely to find solutions.

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mary March 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I agree with Maryann’s perspective that shaming people is not the correct way to help them. In my opinion, another reason why the US has an obesity epidemic is because we are a car-culture. If we could arrange our lives (easier to say) around walking, instead of driving, it would help tremendously. If you look back 4-50 years, like Julia points out, the difference isn’t the stressors, it is the food itself. We buy to many pre-prepared foods, and cook less for our families, maybe due to time constraints, busy schedules, or it may not be the priority it used to be. Getting back to simple, home-prepared foods is also a good place to start.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Thanks Mary. In my WebMD article I discuss how the women’s movement really took away cooking and family meals as a priority. Not on purpose but just a consequence we can see now. Many parents today don’t know how to cook and that is a hinderance. And activity is huge not only with cars but TV/electonics and less activity in schools. We used to play for hours outside but many parents are scared to let their children out.

I’ve worked in hospitals, weight loss camps (for kids), outpatient counseling and at the corporate level at places like Jenny Craig and Kraft. I believe that no two people are alike when it comes to why they eat.

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mary March 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

40-50!

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susan taylor March 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Actually this exhibit is at Walt Disney World, somewhere in Epcot. It is not at Disneyland. I’ve noticed that those in the midwest and east coast always call it Disney and those of us on the west coast always call our park Disneyland. Good article and some interesting thoughts about weight loss.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for pointing it out…my mistake!

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Jennifer March 13, 2012 at 7:28 am

I’m beginning to think that overeating is not the problem at all, but the quality and kind of foods we eat. When a whole country becomes obese over the course of a few decades, it is indeed NOT the fault of the obese people, particularly the children! What, there were no sedentary people before 1970? There was no one who was genetically predisposed to obesity in 1950? What about the huge rise in food allergies over the same time period? I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with our food supply.

I’m a mom with two children, one overweight and one a bit small for her age. I feed them the same. My overweight child does have a big appetite, but you know what? So does her petite sister. I cook way more than most people I know. We sit down to a healthy, homecooked meal every evening (I am celiac, so homecooking is actually more convenient than trying to find a restaurant–the quick takeout like pizza and Chinese are not possible for me). I limit sweets–snacks are generally fruit and/or cheese. My older child basically never lost her toddler tummy, and she became overweight according to growth charts at age 4 (she’s 9 now). She is on the swim team this year, so she gets at least some exercise. Sure, she could get more. I think most kids in this culture could.

You know what her doctors over the years have told me? Stop letting her drink soda and giving her fast food. Really? That’s the extent of the advice to a mom who is ASKING for help? The pediatrician we had before we moved literally shrugged his shoulders when I asked for advice. I really think they don’t believe me when I say she rarely gets soda and fast food. She’s overweight so we must be doing something wrong. Let’s blame her and her parents so we don’t have to actually figure out what’s going wrong in her diet or in her body chemistry.

Sorry to get on my soapbox here, but I’ve been researching for years trying to figure out how to help her without destroying her body image or putting her at risk for an eating disorder later. I’m pretty sure that no one really knows why so many Americans are obese. You’re right, a broader lens is necessary. I’m sure there are lifestyle changes to be made, but my experience with my two kids makes me think that there are even more elements at work here than your article suggests. Not that those things aren’t also true…just that it’s not the whole story.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Jennifer,

I sent you an email message as well. I would recommend you see a pediatric dietitian who can look at the big picture — what you are feeding, how you are feeding and any tests that need to be run to check the medical angle. You say your daughter is overweight by BMI standards, but not all kids that are overweight have a problem and can be healthy. If she is eating balanced and doesn’t seem to have any other issues like food obsession or sneaking food — then this may be the right weight for her. Just because there are more overweight people today doesn’t mean there weren’t any back in the 50s and 70s (and before that time).

A pediatric dietitian answered the question of feeding big kids here which migth interest you http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2010/09/ask-the-dietitian-what-should-i-do-if-my-kid-is-bigger-than-average/

You might be interested in reading some success stories over at Ellyn Satter’s site with parents with bigger than average children learning to trust their children http://www.ellynsatter.com/success_stories.php Ellyn Satter also has the book Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming that might help.

Good luck. It sounds like you are doing a good job of not making this an issue. If you want to discuss more, then respond to my email.

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Julia Moravcsik March 13, 2012 at 7:51 am

Jennifer — I have a blog post on helping overweight children. You may find some useful tidbits http://smartparentprogram.blogspot.com/2011/11/5-little-known-ways-to-help-your.html

There was an interesting study where researchers gave adults 1000 extra calories per day for a number of months. Most of them gained weight, but a few DIDN’T gain any weight and one did gain weight, but only muscle! We all have different genetic/prenatal/epigenetic makeups. Good luck on your daughter — it’s a fine and difficult line between losing weight and getting an eating disorder.

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