Parents fail to recognize overweight kids

A new study from the Health Department suggests that many parents are failing to recognize weight problems in New York City’s children.

When parents are questioned about their 6 – 12-year-old children, they report that less than a fifth of their kids (18 percent) are slightly or very overweight. When the same parents are asked whether a health care provider said their child was overweight during the past year, the proportion answering yes is even lower (13 percent). Yet objective measures suggest that two to three times that proportion – some 40 percent of the city’s public school children – are in fact overweight or obese.

The findings come from the Health Department’s first-ever comprehensive survey of child health in New York City. Besides revealing large gaps in adults’ perceptions of children’s weight, the study also highlights various behaviors that are contributing to the obesity epidemic, including a lack of exercise and the large amounts of time children spend watching TV or playing video games. The new data underscore the critical need for individual and community efforts to get children moving and to improve their diets.

The objective measures come from NYC FITNESSGRAM, a tool the Department of Education uses to record height, weight and fitness measures among New York City school children each year. The 40 percent rate of overweight and obesity has not budged in the past two years, nor have the disparities among children in this age group.

Hispanic children suffer the highest rates (46 percent), followed by black children (40 percent), white children (34 percent) and Asian children (31 percent). The problem is also more common among boys (43 percent) than girls (38 percent).

“Obesity is a serious, widespread condition plaguing children,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City health commissioner. “It increases the risk of diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – all potentially lifelong health problems – as well as heart disease and cancer during adulthood. It is critical that we protect children now, by creating environments that foster good nutrition and plenty of physical activity.”

The new survey indicates that many parents are missing an important warning sign about their child’s future health, which points to a need for health care providers to bring it to their attention, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents who reported their child’s health care provider discussed weight issues with them were more likely to perceive their child as overweight. Eight in 10 children whose parents reported that a medical provider said they were overweight were also perceived as overweight by their parents, compared with only one in 10 children without a provider-mention of being overweight.

Some ways families can improve children’s health

~Dump the sugary drinks. Sugary beverages such as soda, sports drinks and sweet teas contribute to childhood obesity. Fruit juice is also high in sugar, so serve it in small glasses. Tap water, low-fat milk and seltzer are all good choices for kids.

~Cut back on the fast food. If you do buy fast food, choose options with lower calorie counts.

~Make sure your children get at least an hour of physical activity per day. Options include walking, biking, dancing, playing basketball, swimming – whatever they like that keeps them moving.

~Turn off the TV and the computer. Limit screen time to an hour a day.

~Talk to a health care provider about how to help your child maintain a healthy weight.

Data sources: Child Health Survey 2009 and NYC FITNESSGRAM data

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