Is YOUR Kid Too Fat?

So let’s get down to it. With all the talk about childhood obesity, all the initiatives, all the programs, all the media attention … how do you know if YOUR child is at risk?

Be honest. Have you been looking out the corner of your eye while your kiddo is in the tub? Getting dressed? Running full tilt up the stairs? If the first daughters were gaining weight too fast, are any of our children safe from extra poundage?

Studies suggest that parents tend to underestimate their child’s weight.  In a 2006 study that surveyed the parents of obese children, only one-half recognized that their child was overweight, and less than one-third said they were “worried”.  In another survey, only 38% of parents had taken steps to help their obese child lose weight.

Some parents believe their child’s excess weight is just baby fat, and some may be in denial. Some compare their children to (overweight) peers. Although some overweight kids do outgrow it, roughly two out of three are likely to grow up to be overweight adults, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Not only are kids heavier than ever before, but parents who are overweight themselves are less likely to identify their children as overweight.  Parents are more likely to overestimate the weight of their daughters, and underestimate that of their sons, maybe because  it’s less acceptable for girls to be heavy than boys.

If you’re waiting for your child’s pediatrician to warn you, don’t hold your breath. In spite of the  health risks associated with childhood obesity, pediatricians often fail to screen for it at office visits.  So you will need to bring it up.

The best way to gauge whether your child is overweight is to track their BMI (body mass index) using growth charts, which show the national percentiles for children by age. (Printable growth charts for boys and girls are available on the website of the CDC.)  Ask your doctor to show you how to read them.

Parents should monitor their children’s weight  from birth. You want to see consistency across the growth charts, not a sudden increase.  Periods of rapid weight gain predict future obesity.

Of course, prevention is the key.  We need to choose good foods for our kids as soon as they stop breastfeeding.  Skip the sugary fruit juice, the fat-filled fried stuff, and the empty calories in baked goods.  Be extra careful about processed foods that combine sweet and salty tastes with high fat.  They’re  addictive to the pleasure centers in our brains.

As children get older, we need to teach them about nutrition, appropriate portion sizes, healthy food habits, and the importance of being active. These messages are more successful if they’re delivered in kid-friendly terms.  What’s in it for them?  Are they going to run faster, throw the ball farther, feel better?  Teach it in terms that relate to them, because otherwise none of it means very much.

The take home message is this:  Denial is not just a river in Egypt.  Remember that kids are watching what WE do and what WE eat.  If WE eat well, they will too.  If WE’RE active and move our bodies, they will too.  If WE’RE too fat, chances are they will be too.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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