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Value of Childhood Obesity Screening Unclear

Researchers See Little Evidence That Screening Prevents Obesity-Related Illnesses

Parents Often Don't See Problem continued...

Pediatrician and study co-author Cynthia DeLago, MD, MPH, tells WebMD that parents who were overweight themselves often recognized the problem in their children, but had taken no action.

"We don't know exactly, but it is likely that many of these parents just felt defeated by their own struggles with weight," she says. "You might hear, 'Everybody in our family is big. It's genetics, and there isn't anything we can do about it.'"

The researchers found that parents of children who were 8 years old or older were more likely to be ready to address their child's weight issues than parents of younger children.

DeLago says the realization that parents' attitudes about their children's weight vary widely has changed the way she practices medicine.

"It is important to understand where a parent is coming by asking if their child's weight is a concern," she says. "The discussion that you have with a parent who says 'yes' is very different from the one you have with one who says 'no.'"

She adds that parents are often reluctant to take action until the child sees his or her weight as an issue, usually around the time they hit middle school.

"The problem is that by then you have established certain eating patterns that are really hard to break," she says.

So What Can a Parent Do?

While she agrees that studies addressing childhood obesity are badly needed, pediatric weight loss specialist Melinda Sothern, PhD, says there are effective intervention programs for overweight kids.

Sothern directs the Childhood Obesity Prevention Laboratory at Louisiana State University, and is co-author of the book Trim Kids.

"A good program won't focus on weight," she says. "It will focus on healthy eating, increasing physical activity, and decreasing the time a kid spends in front of the television or computer."

Interventions aimed at younger children should focus on the home environment, she says. Some of the most important changes include:

  • Limiting screen time -- TV, computers, and video games -- to less than 2 hours a day.
  • Making sure kids have plenty of opportunity for exercise, especially unstructured play.
  • Having regular sit-down family meals, and banning snacking in front of the television.
  • Getting junk foods out of the house, and replacing them with fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods.

"The key is for parents to take control of the home," she says. "Young children, especially, will eat what is available. That means junk food if it is there and healthier fare if it isn't."

Parents are less able to influence their older children's behaviors with regard to weight, food choices, and activity, and they should not even try unless asked, Sothern says.

"Parents shouldn't get into struggles about weight and food with teenagers because there are so many other things going on," she says. "We don't really know what works with teens, but we do know that the worst thing a parent can do is confront their teenaged child about their weight."

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