Having doctors routinely weigh overweight children and give parents advice on diet and exercise may have little impact on kids' weight gain or lifestyle habits, a new study suggests.
The findings call into question national policies in countries like the United States, U.K. and Australia, researchers report in the medical journal BMJ.
According to those policies, pediatricians and family doctors should be at the front lines of combating childhood obesity — monitoring children's weight and, when needed, giving parents advice on weight control.
The problem is that there is little evidence that these strategies work, according to the researchers on the current study, led by Dr. Melissa Wake of Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.
One recent research review, for instance, found that no clinical trials have been done to see whether the common practice of weighing children at school has any effects on their odds of becoming overweight.
What's more, even when screening spots children with weight problems, little is known about what types of treatments are effective.
These latest findings, Wake's team writes, suggest that routine weight screening and counseling from doctors are "unlikely to be effective in reducing childhood obesity."
In the study, the researchers followed 258 children ages 5 to 10 who were found to be overweight or mildly obese after a weigh-in at the doctor's office. The children were then randomly assigned to one of two groups — one in which doctors gave parents several counseling sessions on healthy diet and exercise, and a "control" group in which parents received no advice on controlling their children's weight.
After one year, Wake's team found no significant difference in average weight gain between the two groups of children. Nor were there any clear differences in exercise levels or diet habits — though parents who received the counseling reported a dip in their children's soda intake.
There was no evidence of negative effects on the children — like poor body image or lowered self-esteem, the researchers point out. But the lack of clear benefits suggests that healthcare dollars could be better spent, they write.
More research is needed to understand how to best prevent childhood obesity in the first place, and how to effectively treat it, the investigators conclude.