A UC San Diego School of Medicine-led study, published online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has found that often, parents of obese children are unaware of the health hazards of childhood weight gain, and ignore the importance of daily exercise in order to assist their children in maintaining a healthy weight.
“Parents have a hard time changing their child’s dietary and physical activity behaviors,” said lead author Kyung Rhee, MD, and an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Pediatrics. “Our study tells us what factors may be associated with a parent’s motivation to help their child become more healthy.”
For the study, authored by Rebecca McEachern and Elissa Jelalian of Brown University, a survey was taken at the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island in 2008 and 2009. The survey included 202 parents whose children (average-aged 13.8 years) were clinically classified as obese.
Although most of the children were at the clinic because of a referral by a primary care provider, 31.4% of parents believed their children to be in excellent health or very good health; and 28% did not believe that their child’s weight was a health concern.
Parents were, by and large, more interested in helping their children eat a healthy diet than in supporting their children in the recommended one hour per day physical activity component of the program.
Of the parents in the survey, 61.4% improved their children’s eating habits and 41.1% increased their children’s activity level. The researchers found that neither income, education, nor ethnicity/race had a statistical bearing on whether or not parents were making dietary changes in their child’s eating habits.
If parents had talked with their primary care provider about healthy eating, they were more likely to be taking action in changing their children’s diet. Parents who were experiencing their own battle with weight gain, however, were less likely to be addressing their own child’s eating habits.
Researchers could not explain why the physical activity role in maintaining a healthy weight was so overlooked by parents, but the results do seem to line up with other recent studies concerning the current state of our out-of-shape and sedentary youth, who have often replaced outdoor activity time with “screen time”.
Experts say early intervention has proven successful in counteracting the trend. Children 14 or older have a much lower success rate at developing a physical component to their lives than younger children. Also, children in families with annual incomes of less than $40,000 were less likely to be motivated to be active by their parents.
According to a report by CTV News, the study emphasized the role parents play in teaching children healthy habits and making sure those teachings become habitual for their children. They add that in a 2012 study, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers found that parents must first be activated before their children will follow suit.
San Diego’s Fox5News reports that the patients in the study ranged from 5-20 years old. More than two-thirds were female, and 94% were clinically obese. The funding for this study came from a Hasbro Children’s Hospital research award and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.