Since the late 1970s, the percent of overweight children six to eighteen years old has more than doubled. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, kids, parents and researchers see the issue from very different perspectives.
Many parents hope their overweight children will grow out of the problem. They hesitate to raise weight-related issues for fear of damaging self-esteem or pushing their kids toward an eating disorder.
Perhaps more surprisingly, parents do not generally see weight as a health issue for children. Parents think of them as “healthy” if they have no serious current medical problems. A long-term outlook is not on their minds. Parents generally feel overweight adolescents will outgrow the problem.
Kids don’t see weight as a health issue either. For them, weight is significant only as it affects performance and appearance.
Researchers, however, view current trends in children’s weight with more concern. Most are not concerned over chubby preschoolers. As long as their habits are healthy, weight status often changes as they grow. But as kids get older, parental hopes that children will simply “outgrow” excess weight are considered unrealistically optimistic.
Seventy to 80 percent of obese adolescents become obese adults. Although a little weight gain often precedes a spurt of height growth, continued high placement on the growth charts for kids (available at www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/bmi-for-age.htm) is a problem.
The absence of any immediate health consequences doesn’t mean that there won’t be any at all. Studies show no initial difference in mortality rates for overweight children and adolescents compared to their peers. But those who are seriously overweight as adolescents have a 50 to 100 percent greater mortality rate as young and middle-aged adults. Furthermore, what was once considered adult onset diabetes is growing among today’s overweight adolescents.
Parents may fear upsetting their child’s self-esteem or triggering an eating disorder by addressing excess weight. Yet teachers see that being overweight negatively affects a child’s self-esteem. Children don’t like their parents nagging or criticizing them about their appearance or behaviors. But surveys indicate they want their parents to provide better guidance about becoming and staying fit.
Development of eating disorders is linked to dieting, food restriction, and to the misguided belief that a certain body shape is necessary to be loved. Parents should actively work to counteract damaging messages in our culture, which promote dieting and excessively lean bodies.
Parents say that they focus attention on high-risk behaviors like sex and drugs. Messages that promote a healthy weight also address high-risk behavior: being overweight and inactive puts children’s health at risk. The message should be the same: Respect your body and yourself.
Kids should be encouraged to eat healthfully and stay active — not so they become accepted and lovable, but because good health is precious.
Sometimes parents complain that they find it difficult to be a good role model. Studies do suggest that having at least one parent involved in weight change efforts brings better results. However, both kids and parents say they needed help setting reasonable goals. Next week, we will look at what those goals might be and how to achieve them.