The children of the families surveyed for the new research were attending an obesity clinic at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I.
“A third categorized their child’s health as excellent or very good,” said study researcher Dr. Kyung Rhee, now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.
Rhee surveyed slightly more than 200 families in 2008 and 2009 to evaluate their readiness to help their children lose weight. She found that 28 percent of the parents did not perceive their child’s weight as a health concern. But experts know that childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term ill effects on health, including risks for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Thirty-one percent of the parents thought their child’s health was excellent or very good.
Parents were more likely to try to improve their children’s eating habits than to increase exercise, Rhee found. While 61 percent said they were trying to improve eating habits, just 41 percent said they were increasing their child’s activity level.
If parents were obese, they were less likely to be helping their children change. Most of the children, 94 percent, were obese, and their pediatrician referred them to the clinic for help in slimming down. The other 6 percent were overweight.
The study was published online recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Rhee said the findings are similar to a study she did in 2005, asking about parents’ readiness to change their child’s behavior if the child needed to lose weight.
The parents’ own weight status affected how willing they were to make changes in their children’s eating habits. “The parents who thought their own weight was a health problem were less likely to make changes in a child’s diet,” Rhee said.
She can’t say why this is, because the survey did not ask. But Rhee suspects that the parents may have been discouraged by their own failed attempts at dieting.
In the study, the average age of the children and teens was about 14, but ranged from 5 to 20.
While income, race or ethnicity didn’t have a bearing on whether parents were trying to improve their child’s diet, income did play a role in whether parents encouraged exercise. Those who made less than $40,000 a year were less likely to encourage exercise. The survey didn’t ask the reasons why.
Dr. William Muinos, director of the weight management program at Miami Children’s Hospital, reviewed the findings of the study. “There is a lot of fact to this study that I experience every day [with parents],” he said.
Parents often tell Muinos their children will ”grow out” of their weight problem, and he tells them that is hazardous thinking. Research has found that children who are obese are likely to be obese as adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Muinos tells parents of overweight children that starting early with a good diet and a regular physical activity is crucial. “Early intervention is key both in establishing good eating habits and exercise,” he said.