Ask the Expert
f your child were overweight, would you know it? In the U.S., more than one-third of children and adolescents are either overweight or obese, and studies are showing parents aren’t recognizing it.
“Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the past 30 years,” said Aisha Ali, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Associates – Tyler Retail Village. “While we know an unhealthy lifestyle contributes to that, another factor has come to light. We are now learning that parents don’t always see obesity and so they may not be intervening to improve their child’s health.”
When researchers at New York University’s Department of Population Health recently looked at data on how parents perceive their overweight young children, they learned that nearly 95 percent believed their child’s size to be “just right.” The study also found that compared with the same study done 20 years earlier, the chance of the parent correctly perceiving the child’s weight declined by 30 percent.
“As the adult population has become heavier, it is changing their perception of what a healthy weight looks like — for themselves and for their children,” Dr. Ali said. “And when parents see their child side-by-side with their peers or friends, their child may look the same size.”
The study focused on children ages 2 to 5, because that’s when eating habits usually become established. This is the time when children take interest in modeling their parents’ behavior. If they see parents eating healthfully and being active, children will do the same.
“We know that overweight young children tend to become overweight teens, and overweight teens tend to become overweight adults,” Dr. Ali said. “That’s why maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a goal that should be shared by the whole family from day one. The goal of a change in lifestyle is to create a more fulfilling life overall — not just to lose weight, which can seem overwhelming.”
There’s another facet to this as well: Self-esteem. Parents want to foster self-confidence in their children and, therefore, may avoid talking about weight. They may want to make only positive comments about their children’s appearance.
“It’s a difficult balance, but that’s where the child’s doctor or pediatrician can help,” Dr. Ali said. “We can talk about weight from an objective perspective related to the child’s age and development. Our job is to help the parent raise a healthy child. This is the time to set them up for success as adults so they avoid developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other conditions that come with being overweight or obese. The physician and parent can come up with common goals to get the child on track.”
Simple changes — for both parent and child — can make a world of difference: Avoid drinking soda, stay away from packaged and fast food, and add physical activity to your day. It won’t take long to notice a change in weight.
“The entire family will likely find that these small changes also improve sleep, mood, school or work performance, and overall well-being,” Dr. Ali said. “These habits will also guide children along a path to a healthy future.”
Tips for establishing healthy eating habits
- Think of food as a tool to provide energy for daily activities rather than a form of enjoyment or entertainment.
- Try to eat only when hungry and cut down portion sizes.
- Find activities that bring the family joy outside of food, such as taking walks together, bird watching or being out in nature.
- Try a strenuous activity, such as jogging, when you feel the urge to eat during stressful, sad or depressed times. The activity will give the body the boost of endorphins it is craving, without the calories.