Does Abstinence Work?

Jane Jimenez

Jane Jimenez

March 14, 2005

“We’ve seen it sneaking up on us, we’ve known it’s a problem, and now it’s reaching epidemic proportions,” Anne Loudenslager told CNN.  She heads the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health. “We are using a good portion of our limited resources to stop this.”

Dr. Ellsworth, a director of research on the problem, said he hopes to have several hundred children in a new health program this year. He calls himself an optimist.  One has to wonder why.  Everything in the CNN health report proves that things are going from bad to worse.

In northeast Pennsylvania, one in 10 kindergartners were found to be obese in 2001-2002. That number doubled for eighth-graders.

These high numbers of obesity are predictors of future health problems.  During a recent health fair, Ellsworth found that 60 percent of adults tested had metabolic syndrome, a collection of unhealthy conditions that raise the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Nevertheless, Ms. Loudenslager and Dr. Ellsworth talk tough.  The community is galvanized to solve this health crisis.  At the largest high school in the county, they plan to alter physical education next year.  Students will have more choices:  sports teams, wellness classes, and traditional gym classes.  The goal is to get kids involved, get them moving, and get them healthy.

Maybe they want to help the kids, but shouldn’t we be asking a few questions about their plan first?  After all, the community resources are limited.  And here they are devoting a good portion of those resources to unproven programs with no statistical evidence that new gym classes will make kids loose weight.

If this were a story on the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, reporters would be all over the health officials demanding proof positive that taxpayer money was not going to be wasted on failed programs.

If this were a story on teen sex, reporters would not give the good Dr. Ellsworth a pass at being an optimist.  They would feed him the statistics to prove how hopeless the future is for fat teens.

After all, Dr. Ellsworth said it himself.  “The numbers for obesity in children were nowhere near what they are today and you can just imagine what we’re going to be looking at 10 to 20 years from now if nothing is done,” he told reporters. “That 60 percent … that’s going to seem like a pretty low figure.”

If this were a story on abstinence, reporters would help him prove the hopelessness of the future.  They would pick a teen and show how impossible Dr. Ellsworth’s job will be.

“I’ve started trying to take it easy on the junk food,” sophomore Ray Crawford says.  At 240 pounds and 5 ft. 9 inches tall, he is already a promising lineman for the school’s football team.  And if he’s overweight, he’s not alone.  So are many of his classmates.

Sure Ray hopes to change his eating habits and exercise.  But a good reporter would go after such baseless optimism.  After all, Ray’s father died of heart disease at 45.  And, according to Dr. Jeff Holm of North Dakota, “…Habits are passed vertically from Grandma on down.”

If this were a story on abstinence, the reporter would search high and low for experts to quote on the inevitability of fat habits.  After all, eating is natural.  All kids are going to eat.  Do we want kids to feel bad about themselves, hurting their self-esteem by telling them they are fat?

If this were a story on abstinence, the reporter would serve up a research study to prove that nobody can really lose weight and keep it off.  We would read about yo-yo diets where kids lose weight one week, and put it back on the next.

If this were a story on abstinence, the reporter would find a student who had failed.  We would hear all about how temptation was just too hard to pass up.  Photos would trace the weight gain of the student from kindergarten to high school, and quotes would be plied from the student:  “I’ve tried, but I just can’t seem to control myself.”

And armed with data, quotes, and examples, the reporter would stick it to the good doctor.  “Aren’t you just wasting your time?  Wouldn’t taxpayer money be better spent on finding ways to make Styrofoam into tasty and nutritious food substitutes?”

Where are the tough journalists when you need them?  Where is the skepticism, the doubt, the challenge and resistance?

You can talk about exercise all day long.  You can have your fancy schmancy gyms, and you can serve vegetables in the school cafeteria.  But before we give you one thin dime of our precious limited resources, tell us what we want to know.

Do exercise and good eating habits work?

April 30, 2004:  Condoms: A Failure to Protect

September 10, 2004:  Duh

See Archives for past editorials.