Parents less likely to recognize if their child has a weight problem

As parents, we often don’t like to admit when our kids have a problem, and a new poll confirms that usually happens when it comes to them being overweight.

According to their parents, 15 percent of children are a little or very overweight, while national data suggest more than twice as many, or 32 percent of all children, are overweight or obese, found a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health.

Underestimating a child’s risk of being overweight or obese could impact them as adults. Adult obesity is associated with a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

“Better nutrition and more physical activity can  help turn this epidemic around, and parents have a unique role to play,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, RWJF president and CEO in a release.  

In addition, only 20 percent of children in households that participated in this poll had a parent who was concerned  that his or her child will be overweight as an adult. However, it is estimated that 69 percent of adults are overweight, including 36 percent who are obese and an additional 6 percent who have “extreme obesity..”

The poll assessed a nationally representative sample of children ages 2  to 17 through their parents or caregivers who knew what the children ate, drank, and did the day before the poll.  

“People often have a hard time making the connection between national problems and their own families,” said Gillian SteelFisher, PhD, assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program and research scientist in  the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management in a release. “Tackling these blind spots can be a difficult, even if necessary, element of public education.”

Here are other key findings from the poll:

  • More than four in 10 children have parents who say it is difficult to make sure their  kids eat to maintain or achieve a healthy weight, and roughly a third of children have parents who  say it is difficult to make sure their kids exercise this way.

  • More than half of children (60 percent) ate or drank something that can lead to unhealthy weight gain between 3 p.m. and bedtime, as  perceived by their parents.  

  • Parents face hurdles in trying to help their kids. For 43 percent of children, parents say the amount of advertising of foods that can lead to unhealthy weight gain presents a problem for them in trying to help their child achieve or maintain a healthy weight. For roughly a third of children, parents report that they face the following problems: many such  foods are offered at lunch at school (33 percent ); the costs of exercise  equipment, gym memberships or team fees is too high (33 percent ); there aren’t good sidewalks near home, so the family drives instead of walking (31 percent); and there are few places that do not serve these foods where the child can spend time with friends (31 percent.).

  • Only 46 percent of children live in households where the family ate together without distractions such as a cell phone, iPod, or laptop. Research suggests that meals without distractions, particularly TV, are associated with lower obesity rates. 

  • Nearly all children (96 percent ) attended family events in the past year where foods with  “high fat or sugar content, like chips, fried foods, fast foods or sweets” were served. Sizable shares of these children live in households where these foods are felt to be “an important part of family traditions” (39 percent ) and where “it doesn’t feel like a celebration” without  them (32 percent).