THE BLOG
07/19/2010 04:37 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Childhood Obesity: What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us

It's always somebody else's problem. Even when it comes to our own health, we always think the latest risks never apply to us. Most patients know that being overweight predisposes them to diabetes. But nine times out of 10, when I tell my patients with diabetes that if they lost weight, they might be able to improve their diabetes control, the response back to me is "Dr. Whyte, I've been overweight for 20 years... and I've only been diabetic for a year." They either simply do not make the connection or they just do not want to see it.

Unfortunately, that ignorance is no longer restricted to their own health; research also shows that many patients have wrong perceptions of their children's weights. What do I mean?

The majority of parents recognize childhood obesity as a serious health problem. Yet, nearly 85 percent of parents of overweight children think their child as being at a healthy weight. If you consider that a third of children are overweight or obese, it's obvious that the numbers don't add up. In some ways, this is no surprise: no parent wants to admit that their child is overweight. Doing so can damage a child's self-esteem at a tender age when image and self-concept are being developed. Parents also shrug it off as "baby fat" that children will lose in their older years.

But the sad truth is that school-age children and teenagers aren't babies; carrying extra weight can't always be blamed on the growth process. Some parents may also feel that extra weight on their kids is proof that they are providing for them sufficiently, which is a rewarding feeling for parents. On the other hand, it's possible that a lot of parents just don't know what a "healthy weight" is. Ask yourself: Do I know how fat is too fat?

Parents aren't the only ones at fault. Doctors also are to blame. Many pediatricians hesitate to bring up a child's weight to the parents. Interestingly, data show that parents are more likely to misclassify their child's weight if their pediatrician fails to comment on it. In fact, less than 8 percent of parents recalled being told by their pediatrician that their child was overweight.

Even though pediatricians have a responsibility to intervene for the good health of the patient, it isn't always this clear. Some pediatricians are not aware of the latest guidelines, other others are worried about offending parents by suggesting that their child is overweight or obese.
So what's my advice to parents of overweight children?

Well, it's important that you don't feel discouraged if your child is overweight - most kids are nowadays. But at the same time, don't neglect it. You can actually help curb the rise in childhood obesity. Your children's generation is the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents! No parents want this for their kids.

So, get educated. Learn about what obesity is, what dangers accompany it, and how to detect it in your children. Then take action. Ask your pediatrician about your child's weight, and keep track of your child's BMI-for-age in between visits. Learn how to prepare healthier foods at home. Promote more physical activity. Maybe even lead by example and join your kids in getting active.

It's important to be honest with yourself early: one study shows that 73 percent of the heaviest nine-year olds will still be obese at age 50. Much of the focus on the fight against obesity has been on school lunches, vending machines, fast food marketing, and video games. And kudos to Mrs. Obama for raising awareness of childhood obesity.

But if we all acknowledge childhood obesity as a problem, but think it doesn't apply to our kids (and chances are it does!), then we will never solve the problem.

Parents are central to that solution. Loving your kids isn't about spoiling them with their favorite junk foods and turning them into couch potatoes. It's about caring for their health. Show your kids how much you love them by being honest with yourself about their weight and looking out for their healthy future.

REFERENCES

"F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2010". Trust for America's Health, 2010: http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2010/Obesity2010Report.pdf

"Parents' Healthy Weight Perceptions and Preferences Regarding Obesity Counseling in Preschoolers: Pediatricians Matter;" Raquel G. Hernandez, MD, MPH; Tina L. Cheng MD, MPH; and Janet R. Serwint, MD; Clinical Pediatrics; June 3, 2010.