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Parents: Don't Downplay Childhood Obesity

Armen Hareyan's picture

Childhood Obesity

Recent studies suggest that many parents are ignoring the health risks confronting their overweight children. Some view it as a passing phase or cosmetic problem, while others fear doing psychological harm by calling attention to a child's weight.

Most parents are aware of America's childhood obesity epidemic, but recent research indicates that many moms and dads fail to recognize the problem in their own kids.

Gerald Endress, coordinator of the youth program at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, said any of several factors could cause parents to overlook or downplay this potentially serious medical condition in their children.

"In America we have this feeling that it's become the norm to be overweight," said Endress, a certified exercise physiologist. "It's important to see that sizes for kids have increased just as much as for adults. It's more acceptable nowadays to see kids who are overweight."

Endress said some parents feel they may do psychological harm by pressuring their child to lose weight, and this parental pressure could backfire.

"These parents are concerned that if they push too hard, the kids will develop an eating disorder. So if a child is considered obese by his physician, they're not sure how far they should push the child to eat less and exercise more."

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Other parents, said Endress, may regard a child's weight problem as simply a phase, one they may have gone through themselves.

"Some parents view it as a cosmetic problem, rather than a health problem. Others may believe that, if a child is overweight but not obese, there's nothing to worry about, that the child will grow out of it," he notes. "They'll use terms like 'chubby' or 'baby fat,' to try and make light of the problem.

"What we see, though, is that you can't look at a child and know whether they're overweight or obese. A child could have a lot of body fat and yet not seem to be that big. I think parents look at it from the standpoint of, 'They'll grow up, not out. But we're not seeing that in our society. We're seeing kids grow out, with a higher waist circumference. They are not keeping up with their growth weight.

"We see that there is a correlation between waist size and health problems in the future. It's almost the same correlation we've discovered with adults. Even more than the height and weight ratio, or the BMI, the waist size is probably a better indicator of future health."

Endress said most children with a weight problem have at least one parent who is also overweight or obese. For these parents, feelings of responsibility or guilt are common.

"I don't want to say that they're embarrassed that their child is overweight. Some of them are uncomfortable with having an overweight child. And, yes, some are uncomfortable with their own body weight, that they're overweight themselves. Sometimes I think it may be comforting to have someone else in their family who is overweight and who's struggling with the same things they are.

"I think the bottom line is that kids need to move more. Most likely they're not going to get that activity in school. The recommendations are also that they have at least some structured playing time at home, and usually that works well before homework, so they're more relaxed and more focused when they do their homework.

Reducing 'screen time' spent on TV and video games also helps a lot. And you can't do any of this without monitoring the portion sizes and the type of foods that kids eat. If parents don't understand where to make changes, they should see a nutritionist or an exercise physiologist or someone who can help them make better choices for their kids."