Parents May Underestimate Risks of Childhood Obesity

A man carries a girl in a park.
A poll by Children's Mercy Hospital and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. finds that parents rate themselves as the most important influence on their child's weight. But parents may also underestimate how important it is to see a doctor about weight problems in kids, the results showed. (Image credit: Losevsky Pavel, Shutterstock)

More than one in six American children and teens are obese, but a new poll suggests that parents and doctors don't always see eye-to-eye on the seriousness of the obesity epidemic. According to the new report, only about half of parents believe it is "very important" to seek medical care for an overweight child.

In contrast, medical professionals say it's important to stay on top of a child's weight.

"It's not just a cosmetic issue," said Sarah Hampl, the medical director of Weight Management Services at Children's Mercy Hospital & Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. "There are medical and psychological complications that are occurring in these kids, and with increasing frequency into their adult years."

The results don't imply that parents don't care about obesity in children; in fact, they were more likely than nonparents to endorse public policies to combat obesity, including requiring insurance to cover treatment and strengthening regulations of food advertisements to kids.

Childhood obesity disconnect

About 18 percent of kids under the age of 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In adults, obesity is marked by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. But BMI, a measure of fatness based on a ratio of height and weight, isn't as straightforward in growing children, so doctors use BMI-for-age growth charts to monitor obesity. [Read: 8 Reasons Our Waistlines Are Expanding]

To gauge parents' perceptions of childhood weight problems, Children's Mercy Hospital contracted with a polling firm to conduct a survey with a nationally representative sample of 2,179 American adults, 728 of whom were parents. Hampl prepared some of the questions for the survey.

The responses revealed some lingering disconnects between parents' evaluation of children's weight and doctors' beliefs. Only 54 percent of parents said it would be "very important" to take an overweight child to the doctor, on par with the 53 percent who said the same of skin problems. In comparison, 81 percent said it would be very important to take a child to the doctor if the child had diabetes symptoms, and 80 percent said the same of asthma.

"Those are very visibly obvious things," Hampl said of diabetes and asthma. "With obesity, you don't see what's going on inside the child's body. You don't see the high blood pressure, you don't see the high lipids, you don't see the prediabetes conditions, so that may be a reason that parents don't recognize it as needing more immediate medical attention."

Concern and solutions

But parents weren't unconcerned with childhood obesity. Though they didn't all rate it as "very important," 82 percent of parents did say they would seek medical help for an overweight child. This was, however, less than the 94 percent who said they'd seek medical help for a child with a condition that would limit their life expectancy and the 93 percent who said they'd seek help for a childhood condition that would lead to later health care costs. Childhood obesity does both, Hampl pointed out.

"Obesity is likely going to limit a person's life expectancy and increase their future health care costs," she said. "So for us, it was a realization that we need to help parents better understand that childhood obesity does track into adulthood."

Both parents and nonparents cited parents as the group with the greatest role in preventing childhood obesity. But parents were more likely than nonparents to endorse an "it takes a village" approach to limiting childhood weight gain. About 81 percent of parents supported requiring healthy food choices in areas with vending machines, compared with 77 percent of nonparents. Likewise, 77 percent of parents supported insurance coverage of obesity treatment, compared with 69 percent of nonparents.

Parents also wanted to see more neighborhood sidewalks, with 76 percent supporting sidewalks in all neighborhoods versus 62 percent of nonparents. They supported tighter controls on children's advertising, with 73 percent of parents advocating stronger regulations on food marketing to kids. About 67 percent of nonparents said the same. Parents were also more likely to support keeping fast food restaurants far from schools, with 60 percent saying they'd support limits on where such establishments could be built compared with 54 percent of nonparents.

Neither parents nor nonparents were very supportive of taxing junk food to discourage consumption, but parents viewed such policies slightly more favorably. About 39 percent of parents and 32 percent of nonparents supported taxing chips and sweets, while 42 percent of parents and 35 percent of nonparents supported taxing soft drinks as a way to combat childhood obesity.

The margin of error in the survey for all adults is plus or minus 2 percent, while the margin of error for the parent sample alone is 3.6 percent.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.