And more importantly is it a healthy way to combat the obesity epidemic or obesity in your child; plenty of parents think so shelling out thousands of dollars for this school year camp that incorporates weight loss and academics. This school too boasts some impressive statistics; while 90 something percent of diet and weight loss programs turn out to be failures, the school reports two thirds of its graduates maintain or continue their weight loss after returning home. According to them it’s a combination of stringent rules, nutritional education, exercise and talk therapy that makes the difference. Yet no obesity related conversation is complete without cost comparisons; it is even how this school justifies its hefty price tag of $50,000 an academic year, by placing it alongside the purported cost of “being obese,” $153,000 over a lifetime in lost wages, medical expenses, according to the clinical director making $6,000 a month seem more reasonable. By that as it may, there is a larger set of questions to be asked aside from the arguably outlandish money spent; like what is the true cost to the kids who go through this program? The news reporter parroted words spoken by doctors, school directors and anyone sounding the alarm about obesity in children, calling it a race to save students’ lives, but what are the consequences? Are they all as positive as claimed?
Forgoing the existence of the school, camps and treatment facilities like this for a moment, first to be addressed is why these kids are being sent there in the first place. Is it because the family has no clue about nutrition, no concept of healthy living, activities to keep themselves well and at an acceptable weight? Is it because they have poor parenting skills and have completely lost control of their child, the result of which is a situation where food and weight are the least of the issues? Is it because the family finds it too difficult to make the lifestyle changes that would positively effect their child’s weight, health and wellbeing, because if any of this is the case, no matter where they are sent, any changes won’t last long term. It won’t matter how much they lose while at school if they go home to a house full of unhealthy foods, a lack of healthy snacks, meals and instead a host of temptations to go back to old habits; because you’re dealing with kids, they can’t force their parents to buy healthier things, they can engage in their own exercise routine, but it will only go so far without the support of the rest of the family. Another potential problem, toxic family dynamics where the whole family needs help and they decided to send their child to a weight loss school yet the child’s difficulties are just a symptom of serious larger family dysfunction. Talk therapy is heralded has the hallmark making the difference in this program; however, what happens when they encounter cases where the child has been sexually abused, physically neglected by some person in their life and they need major psychological intervention before weight loss can even be addressed? Other obvious warnings come from comments made by the students themselves; one was having trouble at her old school being called manatee, white whale and many names besides, seeing herself as a fat blob. The family’s alternative, sending her to the Wellspring Academy, not a conversation with the school about bullying, not attempts to bolster her self-esteem so that what they say has less of an impact on her, only an attempt to change what she looks like thus eliminating the superficial problem.
Next is who is being sent to these types of schools and the urgent message that having such a school, making obese children attend such a school really is an attempt to save a young life; outside one teenager classified as morbidly obese who was diabetic already, the segment showed a 400 plus pound male teen with no typically obesity associated health problems who rather got fed up with not being able to walk a block, who was starting to have trouble fitting into a seatbelt and a girl who lost 67 pounds and was about to graduate, eager to show off her new figure at her high school prom back home. The latter reportedly arrived weighing in at 211 pounds, despite not looking anywhere close to that; instead she looks slightly chunky, not even over weight. In spite of that she was still struggling not to see a 200 pound girl in the mirror, struggling to find positive attributes to her body clearly showing the appealing effect of having lost weight. She appeared to display markers of future psychological issues too, remarking she often pinched her thighs during meals very conscious of the weight she still has. By no means is it new for people with food and weight struggles to have trouble recognizing their new bodies, be hyper aware of weight they still have to lose, gaining once they reach their target weight; sadly the vibe given in the piece is that likewise being sent to a school for fat kids made it’s imprint too on a young girl who might well have been better off with nutritional counseling, talk therapy centered around weight loss, at minimum determining if there are any other psychological issues present besides those around food, attempting to determine if you’re dealing with an emotional eater, a person with a food addiction or just a teen who eats because they are bored, a teen who is eating all the wrong things and getting no exercise. All being done on an outpatient basis, at home coupled with family support to make lifestyle changes rather than being carted off to a boarding school, supporting the idea that some parents are more willing to pay 50,000 dollars for someone to fix their child than putting in the work on their family. On the flipside are well meaning parents who don’t understand the negative aspects a place of this kind place can have on certain personality types, more vulnerable young people, who mistakenly think this is the best thing for their child and the damage is presented above.
Which brings us to looking at the school itself, beginning with the strict rules including no T.V. outside the gym, no food outside the dining hall and only 2 10 minute phone calls home a week, the clinical director stating they want to nurture both a healthy obsession and have participants crave that kind of structure; however, quite possibly what you end up doing is creating an atmosphere where kids are more tempted to “cheat,” break rules end up getting kicked out. You run the very real risk of making a child feel like they are being punished something that can cause stress eating or simply give them no incentive whatsoever to try. Relegating T.V. to the gym only removes what could be a valuable distraction to keep one from compulsive eating by having something else enjoyable to do. Most damaging is the limited contact with family; they take kids from 11to 18. No 11 year old would want to go to such a place and being there stranded from family could only serve to hamper progress because they miss home, want mom or dad. Children may feel rejected, unwanted and unloved, feel dumped there because their family didn’t want them, their fat selves, their struggle around. Then there’s the stigma of being forced to attend a fat school for tweens and teens who want to simply be like their peers. Common sense says you can’t have kids tying up the facilities phones talking for hours with their families, yet limiting it to 2 10 minute calls per week is reminiscent of jail, exactly the kind of feeling you don’t want to inspire; not to mention most kids carry cellphones, while you don’t want them avoiding responsibilities and work talking to family a reasonable amount of contact is needed. Further families too need to learn or relearn to adopt healthy eating, exercise and activity habits to aid their child when they reenter the real world. Classes and help for the family should be included in any such program for children. Nutritional teaching for both students and parents should not only encompass healthy cooking tips but how to cook fatty favorites for less calories, how to make foods more nutritious without effecting taste, hiding good for you things in everyday meals so that these kids don’t feel deprived sabotaging positive diet changes. The news reporter responded with pleasantly shocked amusement when one student told her his dad didn’t even recognize him when he went home for spring break his physique had changed so much; however, it is wholly wrong to cut off a child’s contact with family so long they can no longer recognize them. If you honestly believe the family will be that detrimental to a student’s progress, then they and their family need more than Wellspring knows how to provide. If the concept is to not have students distracted from good progress by family days, parent visitation, then offering the option to send pictures, letters home, letting the students decide whether or not that is something they want to do to avoid awkward scenarios like what happened to that particular young man.
Relatedly it is arguably setting the school experience up to fail by changing too much at once, new school, new rules, new people on top of confronting sometimes lifelong weight and food issues along with the pressure of academics as well, academics that may be more difficult than their pervious school, that may cause added struggles if only because they are drastically different than where their former school left off. Worse is how they go about getting kids to exercise no, nothing draconian, barbaric but many might say boring, run of the mill, rewards for brisk morning walks, the segment showing basic exercise equipment giving these kids and teens the idea exercise is just another chore they have to do, a dreaded task holding no enjoyment. Obviously not everything can be packed into a news feature mere minutes long; certainly it was meant to give an overview of a new trend, a new way to help obese kids. Still time was spent explaining the price, the rules and the why of them, the therapy setting them apart from similar programs trying to achieve the same goals, so why not at least mention sports and alternative forms of activity, if you have them, leaving viewers, people who might even consider the school for their child to conclude that as opposed to sports, fun activities allowing kids to get exercise without really noticing it, shed pounds they fill them with the feelings of drudgery. Another hurdle facing kids in this type of environment is the “biggest loser” element to it all; having people around you going through the same thing, reaching for the same goal is often a positive unfortunately not necessarily in this case. Fact is kids will brag about how much they have lost; regardless of whether the school has been preemptive enough to ban exchanging that information, kids will see it in their fellow classmates’ appearance, the fit of their clothing and if they aren’t losing as fast, undergoing as much of a transformation, they are going to feel like a failure, harbor jealousy towards them, throwing progress out the window.
Likewise the reporter noted the strenuous activity drove some to the emotional brink, yet it is not the emotional brink when a person feels nauseated, when they feel so physically unwell they just want to lie down, not from fatigue, tiredness but a feeling of actual sickness. Of course the reported is not expected to know the difference; the school’s indifference to repeated occurrences is disturbingly striking. Yes there was someone with the person breaking down, telling her to hold her hands over her head to alleviate symptoms, but it was seen as the price of getting healthy, begging the question do these facilities have the medical staff to be on the lookout for stress fractures, are they aware that losing too much weight too soon can be harmful on the body, effect metabolism making it easier to gain weight even with just a slight increase in calories, a minimal drop in exercise, particularly considering you’re dealing with kids, young adults whose bodies may already be in a state of flux due to puberty, where they are in the growth cycle? The staff at Well Spring doesn’t seem to; in fact, they seem to think drastic weight loss is to be expected. Contrary to that philosophy, most research studying effective long term weight loss advocate going slowly making small changes in diet and food choices, making incremental changes to workouts adding 5 more minutes to a walk adding 2-3 more pushups, sit ups, pull ups to a workout, possibly a set of any of the above. A well-known trainer went from fit to fat and back again, his journey underscoring the concepts in the above two paragraphs. He talked about going from being able to do an absurd amount of pull ups to not being able to do a minimum amount absent feeling dizzy, sick; he spoke about going from Cinnamon Toast Crunch to a fiber cereal and it tasting like dog food, proving being healthy, making good choices has a far greater success if foods actually taste like food and you accept the limits of your body now while pushing toward where you want to be.
For those who believe in the concept of emotional eating, emotional eaters, those who believe compulsive/over eating is an addiction, it must cause them to cringe when they learn about the director of a school attempting to foster a healthy obsession in teens. Meticulous food diaries and calorie counting overlaid with daily chronicling of feelings sets the stage for a “healthy obsession” centered around becoming healthy, maintaining healthy that quickly turns to the dangerous opposite end of the spectrum developing into anything from anorexia and bulimia to the newest eating disorder to come to light, orthorexia only eating healthy foods to the point of excluding entire food groups flirting with malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Basically you’re, at least in some cases, trading one addiction for another unless you deal with the underlying addictive personality, unless you build better coping skills in a person, teach them to deal with their feelings instead of cover them with food, treat the underlying anxiety that fuels a need for illicit drugs in certain people but fuels exercise obsession, healthy food obsession, a getting skinny obsession in others. Said theories given credence in statements voiced by the students in talk therapy; going back to the young woman in paragraph 3, in addition to pinching her thighs during meals, she was abjectly terrified of gaining as little as 5 pounds. Again a fear that is not uncommon among those who have fought with weight problems; making it particularly acute and a source of potential future problems is confronting this in teens whose bodies will change as they age, who will inevitably gain weight during their adult lives as hormones fluctuate, women go through menopause, men’s testosterone levels decrease. Things that are perfectly normal likely to set off panic in people who have inadvertently or not, been conditioned to believe that normal processes indicate a lack of self-control, a relapse to old habits, a return to a life of ridicule and misery. A final problem presented by the boarding school concept, taking children away from their family and home in order to conquer their food issues is the resulting fear of returning to the real world returning home, returning to their old school, going to college, having to continue a completely new lifestyle in the midst of temptations like junk and fast foods, eating out at restaurants on special occasions apparently sans any teaching on choosing the healthiest menu items when eating out, which fast food places have the least calorie items, as opposed to conquering them in typical talk therapy weekly sessions as they come up, as the person deals with them in everyday life.
Yes obesity is a problem, yes it requires viable, successful solutions so our young people can live full, productive lives and the long lives they are supposed to. But to be challenged is the assumption all people classified medically or on common terms as obese have debilitating health problems, miss more work or rack up more in medical bills; facts that just aren’t there. Yes an obese person increases their risk of specific chronic health problems, yet it is by no means a guarantee they will have those problems. Neither is there anything saying obese people cannot master the same life milestones as everyone else solely because of their size; they still go to school, get degrees, training, work, fall in love, have families, expectations, things they want to accomplish, they simply do it sadly under the scorn of others who despise sitting next to them on a bus, don’t want to be next to them on a plane, laugh or ignore them if they drop something on the street vs. the attractive person everyone is willing to help, start a conversation, flirt with. Even if the social factors listed weren’t true and all the dooms day predictions from doctors, dietitians, researchers was, Wellspring academy and programs like it are not the way to achieve the goal of a healthier young populous or a healthier national populous. There are too many negative things it could bring down on susceptible young adults causing them nothing but future problems; the concepts and curriculum leave out several key facets that are paramount to success outside the school, does not compensate or accommodate for serious psychological issues, serious emotional traumas underlying their dependence on food, nor devise treatment with this in mind. Frankly our young people deserve better.