AAP vs AED on Obesity Treatment: Is There a Middle Ground?

David C. Rettew, MD


February 21, 2023

The recent debate about how best to address the growing epidemic of obesity in children and adolescents has pitted different professional organizations against each other. While there is little controversy that both obesity and eating disorders represent important public health concerns, each deserving of clinical attention, how best to address one without worsening the other has been the crux of the discussion.

David C. Rettew, MD

Sparking the dispute was a recent publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics that outlines the scope of the obesity problem and makes specific recommendations for assessment and treatment.[1] The ambitious 100-page document, with 801 citations, puts new emphasis on the medical and psychological costs associated with obesity and advocates that pediatric primary care clinicians be more assertive in its treatment. While the guidelines certainly don’t urge the use of medications or surgery options as first-line treatment, the new recommendations do put them on the table as options.

In response, the Academy of Eating Disorders issued a public statement outlining several concerns regarding these guidelines that centered around a lack of a detailed plan to screen and address eating disorders; concerns that pediatricians don’t have the level of training and “skills” to conduct these conversations with patients and families with enough sensitivity; and worries about the premature use of antiobesity medications and surgeries in this population.[2]

It is fair to say that the critique was sharply worded, invoking physicians’ Hippocratic oath, criticizing their training, and suggesting that the guidelines could be biased by pharmaceutical industry influence (of note, the authors of the guidelines reported no ties to any pharmaceutical company). The AED urged that the guidelines be “revised” after consultation with other groups, including them.

Not unexpectedly, this response, especially coming from a group whose leadership and members are primarily nonphysicians, triggered its own sharp rebukes, including a recent commentary that counter-accused some of the eating disorder clinicians of being more concerned with their pet diets than actual health improvements.[3]

After everyone takes some deep breaths, it’s worth looking to see if there is some middle ground to explore here. The AAP document, to my reading, shows some important acknowledgments of the stigma associated with being overweight, even coming from pediatricians themselves. One passage reads, “Pediatricians and other PHCPs [primary health care providers] have been – and remain – a source of weight bias. They first need to uncover and address their own attitudes regarding children with obesity. Understanding weight stigma and bias, and learning how to reduce it in the clinical setting, sets the stage for productive discussions and improved relationships between families and pediatricians or other PHCPs.”

The guidelines also include some suggestions for how to talk to youth and families about obesity in less stigmatizing ways and offer a fairly lengthy summary of motivational interviewing techniques as they might apply to obesity discussions and lifestyle change. There is also a section on the interface between obesity and eating disorders with suggestions for further reading on their assessment and management.[4]

Indeed, research has looked specifically at how to minimize the triggering of eating disorders when addressing weight problems, a concern that has been raised by pediatricians themselves as documented in a qualitative study that also invoked the “do no harm” principle.[5] One study asked more than 2,000 teens about how various conversations about weight affected their behavior.[6] A main finding from that study was that conversations that focused on healthy eating rather than weight per se were less likely to be associated with unhealthy weight control behaviors. This message was emphasized in a publication that came from the AAP itself; it addresses the interaction between eating disorders and obesity.[7] Strangely, however, the suggestion to try to minimize the focus on weight in discussions with patients isn’t well emphasized in the publication.

Overall, though, the AAP guidelines offer a well-informed and balanced approach to helping overweight youth. Pediatricians and other pediatric primary care clinicians are frequently called upon to engage in extremely sensitive and difficult discussions with patients and families on a wide variety of topics and most do so quite skillfully, especially when given the proper time and tools. While it is an area in which many of us, including mental health professionals, could do better, it’s no surprise that the AED’s disparaging of pediatricians’ communication competence came off as insulting. Similarly, productive dialogue would be likely enhanced if both sides avoided unfounded speculation about bias and motive and worked from a good faith perspective that all of us are engaged in this important discussion because of a desire to improve the lives of kids.

From my reading, it is quite a stretch to conclude that this document is urging a hasty and financially driven descent into GLP-1 analogues and bariatric surgery. That said, this wouldn’t be the first time a professional organization issues detailed, thoughtful, and nuanced care guidelines only to have them “condensed” within the practical confines of a busy office practice. Leaders would do well to remember that there remains much work to do to empower clinicians to be able to follow these guidelines as intended.

Dr. Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Lane County Behavioral Health in Eugene, Ore., and Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. His latest book is “Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows About the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood.”

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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