Why Don't Parents Take Childhood Obesity Seriously?

childhood obesity, fat kids
Do overweight kids who exercise still need medical treatment?

Do parents take obesity seriously enough? According to doctors involved in a recent study, no, no they do not.

The survey, conducted by the Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, found that only just over half of parents said they would seek medical help for an overweight child, whereas at least three-quarters said they’d get medical help if their child showed symptoms of diabetes, asthma or even a learning difficulty.

This study is supposed to provoke outrage and soul-searching among the parenting population, but know what? I’m not falling for it.

What’s important to point out first of all is that this research was conducted by a for-profit hospital. Not just that, but a for-profit hospital with a Weight Management Services clinic under its roof. I bet they want more parents to seek medical help for their fat kids.

Now let’s look at what parents do think needs medical help: asthma and diabetes. Well, good, because asthma and diabetes are life-threatening conditions until they are diagnosed and managed medically to some degree. Being overweight and obesity, in and of themselves, are not life-threatening. Yes, they can be a symptom of poor health, but they don’t guarantee it. There are healthy people — healthy kids, even — who are considered overweight or obese. If a parent has no reason to think his or her child is unhealthy, why would they seek medical attention for that child?

And it’s this that is the problem of our obesity agenda in the U.S. We’re trying to decide whether a kid is critically at risk for heart disease or diabetes simply by looking at them or charting their weight-to-height ratio, their BMI. Those numbers alone are the deciding factor, with no consideration for a child’s heart rate, endurance, muscular strength or lifestyle in general.

Even the director of the program that conducted the survey gets it wrong in her statement about the findings. Here’s what she says (emphasis mine):

“Despite the attention on the obesity epidemic, the disconnect found among parents regarding the long term outcomes associated with childhood obesity is concerning,” said Sarah Hampl, MD, medical director, Weight Management Services at Children’s Mercy, in a statement. “Obese children have both immediate and future health problems, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The survey illustrates that parents need help connecting the dots between having an overweight child and what their future health consequences may be.”

Really? Just like that? All obese kids suffer from high blood pressure? That’s simply not true.

Furthermore, our current way of determining whether a person (including kids) is overweight or obese is by a dubious formula invented in the mid-19th century to determine the amount of body fat in a population, not the individual. It doesn’t allow for what we know is a range of individual body types. Big people don’t have a fighting chance against the overweight/obesity designation, no matter how fit they are.

Which is really the problem with weight and obesity and overweight talk — especially when it comes to kids. Yes, yes there are many many visibly unhealthy kids out there. Often, these unhealthy kids are also tremendously overweight. I am not denying that. These are the kids who should get medical treatment and tests to see if they’re already headed down the road to poor health and early death. But the first and often last stop is the scale, rather than, say, inquiries into their level of daily physical activity, what and how much was eaten over a week. Medical treatment for obesity isn’t always the priority. (Medical treatment for high blood pressure, on the other hand, often is.)

As for the moderately healthy or even super-healthy kids out there who are also visibly overweight: to treat them medically is, what? A good idea? No. Every child should be getting regular exams by a physician and what would be ideal is if that physician has known the kid forever and also knows the family, their lifestyle, what ails mom and dad and so forth. And if the stealth-healthy fat kid actually is determined to be healthy, then let it go. Let the weight go. Enough, enough already!

For the children who eat crap and don’t have access (or inclination) to go out and play and run and exercise then sure, let’s panic about a lack of interest in treating them. Let’s panic about a lack of access for treating them. The skinny ones, too.

But forget about the goal being a smaller number, be it size, weight or BMI. The focus should be on bigger numbers: miles walked/ran, pounds lifted, days spent outdoors, number of leafy greens now able to prepare for dinner.

Parents know this is good advice. The same survey found that 80 believed parents had the most potential to help their child “combat obesity.”

Photo: Flickr

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