Sept. 13, 2000 (Washington) -- Violence, illegal drugs, sexually transmitted diseases, or obesity -- which of these is the greatest threat to the health of children? Far and away, it's childhood obesity, because of the long-term health problems associated with being overweight. But a survey of more than 1,000 parents reveals that only about 5% identified the correct answer.
The survey, which involved parents of children ages 6 to 18, was presented here at a meeting of the American Obesity Association (AOA).
"The most important finding of the survey is that parents are disconnected with the real long-term risks of obesity," Judith Stern, ScD, tells WebMD. "Long-term obesity is by far the most serious problem of those we asked parents to rate, and this should act as a wake-up call for public health officials and health care providers to educate people better." Stern is a professor of internal medicine and nutrition at the University of California at Davis and vice president of the AOA.
In the AOA-sponsored survey, over 30% of the parents surveyed indicated that they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about their own child's weight. Parents identified too little physical activity and bad eating habits as the most important causes of obesity.
"One very encouraging parental attitude we discerned was that almost 80% of parents thought physical education classes should not be cut in favor of additional academic courses," say Stern. "Additionally, less than half of those surveyed thought schools were doing a 'good' or 'excellent' job of teaching lifestyle patterns to help prevent obesity. Parents are simply unwilling to balance the education budget on the hips and health of their children, and that's an attitude that should be encouraged."
According to William Deitz, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the CDC in Atlanta, one disturbing attitude seen among the parents surveyed was that they said changing their own exercise and dietary habits would be easy to do if they thought it would help their children.
"If that is the case, then why aren't parents modifying their eating and exercise habits?" he asks. He says parents may be confusing the terms "obese" and "overweight." "I think many parents think their child is only obese if they weigh 300 pounds, and perhaps we need to use the word 'overweight' to get through to them," he says.
Right now, about 25% of American children are overweight, with about 10-15% falling into the obese category. The number of overweight and obese Americans is increasing so fast that it is being called an epidemic. At the same time, research shows that obesity is very difficult to treat.
"The public is still expecting a single miracle drug that's going to make this problem disappear, and that's not going to happen," says Morgan Downey, JD, executive director and chief executive officer of the AOA. "The body is extremely good at engaging compensatory mechanisms for weight maintenance. Until we understand all of those, and the impact of genetics on weight, it's like me trying to play chess against a grand master. I have a chance, but it's a very slim one, of success."
The National Institutes of Health is funding a good deal more research on obesity, but it is also focusing a lot of effort on prevention, says Dietz.
"Although there are some interventions and medications that may help people control their weight, we know that for most of them, lifestyle changes, including modification of food intake and exercise, are what's required," he says. "Just as is the case for other chronic diseases, prevention is key."
For more information from WebMD, see our Diseases and Conditions page on Weight Control.