Overweight Kids Don't See the Problem

Their parents also don't view the excess weight as a health issue

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HealthDay Reporter

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

WEDNESDAY, June 11, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Most children aged 8 to 12 who are overweight don't view the excess pounds as a health problem, a new study finds.

Instead, these so-called "tweens" worry about what those extra weight means for their athletic performance or their appearance, says Susan T. Borra, a registered dietitian and lead author of the report, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Worse, parents also do not initially view obesity as a health issue, adds Borra, who is senior vice president and director of nutrition for the International Food Information Council Foundation.

The problem, says Borra, is that parents often don't have the tools or skills to encourage their youngsters to follow a healthful diet and get more physical activity.

With childhood obesity on the rise, Borra and her research team conducted focus groups and interview sessions, polling 158 subjects and six families. They examined eating and activity habits of preteen children and asked about their attitudes about healthy living and being overweight. And they tried to find out what kind of help parents and kids need to improve their habits.

Among the findings:

  • The parents tend to see overweight as a social issue, worrying about whether their kids will be less accepted by their classmates.
  • Parents say they feel inadequate to help with weight issues and admit they are often poor role models.
  • Healthy eating is seen as a negative among children. One child described healthy eating as "Mom makes me have a piece of fruit."

At some level, Borra found, both parents and kids know that being overweight is a health risk: "When you talk to them a little more, health does come up, but it is not the first thing on their minds."

An estimated 15 percent of children and teens are overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing statistics from a national survey done in 1999 and 2000. That's an increase of 4 percent from the previous study, which drew on data from 1988 to 1994.

Parents could use some help in improving their children's habits, Borra says. "The language parents are using is not very uplifting," she says. They tend to be blunt, saying things to their overweight children such as 'Don't eat that;' 'Get out of the refrigerator;' 'Get up and move.'"

It's better, Borra suggests, for parents to be more constructive and positive. Better: "Why don't you give your friends a call and go out and play?" Or, "How about if you drink milk now and have a soft drink later?"

The research results ring true with another expert, Pam Anderson, a registered dietitian at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Parents can get so busy they lose sight of healthful lifestyles, she says.

"Many parents I know are so busy they are driving through fast food places [for dinner] going from one sport [that their child plays] to another," Anderson says.

"Fast food undoes the activity. If they are going to have fast food, I suggest get a lean hamburger and bring some fruit instead of letting children have french fries," she says.

The research points out the need for information, Borra says, which led to the development of a kid-friendly website, Kidnetic.com.

Organizations such as food council and the American Dietetic Association are partnering to administer the site, whose funding was provided through unrestricted grants from 13 food and beverage companies, including The Coca-Cola Co., Hershey Foods Corp. and McDonald's Corp.

The fact that some of the companies make foods that are high in fat, calories and sugar is not a problem for Borra. She's in the camp that believes there's no such thing as good food and bad food.

"I am one of those who believe that any food out there can fit in the diet," she says. "The foundation has always been supported by these organizations. It's always been supported by the broad-based food industry."

More information

For more information on childhood obesity, see the American Obesity Association. For tips on helping children, see American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Susan T. Borra, R.D., senior vice president and director, nutrition, International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington, D.C.; Pam Anderson, R.D., Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Calif.; June 2003 Journal of the American Dietetic Association

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