Dr. Andrea Bonior dives into the world of psychology.


There’s a lot that’s commendable about First Lady Michelle Obama‘s “Let’s Move” public health campaign.

Obesity, and the growing incidence of it among children, is a major problem with serious implications for Americans’ life spans, and the quality of their years. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to focus just on the numbers on the scale (the basic determinant of who is obese and who is not), to the serious detriment of the overall health of the country.

While the First Lady has attempted to give a lot of attention to healthy food choices, the soundbite-worthy “anti-obesity” focus perhaps unduly stigmatizes the overweight as compared to the underweight, when the nutritional problems facing children are more pervasive than that. There are plenty of skinny kids who eat mostly processed junk food, and who are no doubt suffering nutritionally, despite the size of their clothes.

The First Lady also must tread carefully when publicizing personal anecdotes about her daughters. Though not as prevalent a problem as childhood obesity, eating disorders stemming from poor body image and an extreme focus on a thin ideal are all too common among certain populations of girls and young women. And having a draconian approach of inflexibility when it comes to gaining a few extra pounds, at a time when a preadolescent’s body might be gearing up for a growth spurt (and when she craves privacy!), can do more harm than good. Arguably, both obesity and the idealization of severe thinness are two sides of the same problem: a focus on extreme thinking and unhealthy emotional relationships with food and movement.

Finally, there is more evidence pointing to the fact that psychological factors play a role not just in overeating, but in the actual metabolic breakdown of food. A new study connecting stress hormones and obesity in girls underscores this biological link. Healthy food choices and exercise are far from the whole picture in the obesity problem; arguably, mental health is central in it as well. Perhaps depression screenings and training in coping mechanisms can make just as much of a dent in the obesity problem as public cheerleading for slimming down.

It’s just too bad that can’t fit in a soundbite.