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Childhood obesity continues to be an epidemic in the U.S., with more than one-third of kids who are either overweight or obese.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century and overweight and obese children are more likely to stay obese into adulthood and suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Although the nation has made inroads in creating awareness and affecting some change, parents will always be their children’s primary influence in all areas of their lives.
But when it comes to childhood obesity, are they to blame?
Pediatricians’ part in childhood obesity
For most parents, pediatricians are the first people they turn to when they have questions about their kids’ health. Pediatricians also play an integral role in preventing childhood obesity.
“Even when families have sufficient knowledge of healthy behaviors, they may need help from pediatricians to develop the motivation to change, to provide encouragement through setbacks, and to identify and support appropriate community resources that will help them successfully implement behavior changes.”
The AAP says pediatricians should encourage parents to be healthy role models, encourage a healthy lifestyle by offering healthy foods, having family meals and persuading kids to increase their physical activity and reduce their screen time.
Despite the responsibility pediatricians have however, the education and tools around childhood obesity are lacking.
According to a September 2010 report by the Association of American Medical Schools, U.S. medical schools offer an average of only 19.6 hours of nutrition education within 4 years of medical school.
That’s not even a day devoted to learning about the one thing that can make or break kids’ health.
And considering most pediatricians only have between 11 and 20 minutes to spend with parents, they’re extremely limited in the knowledge and guidance they can offer.
Despite all this, some physicians say parents are ultimately responsible for childhood obesity.
According to an August 2015 poll by SERMO, a social network for physicians, 69 percent of doctors think parents are either completely or mostly to blame for childhood obesity.
According to one pediatrician:
“Clearly, parents need to shoulder some of the responsibility, and the blame. As parents, we have to set an example and to promote within our families healthy eating and healthy exercise.
However, children are beset on all sides by their non-parental environment as well, which includes access to cheap, high-caloric foods; glitzy advertisements; a raft of screen and video entertainment; low-nutritional value school lunches; and on and on. Parents can be perfect role models, and still lose in this effort.
But at least they stack the odds more favorably for their kids.”
Is childhood obesity genetic?
When a child’s parents, grandparents and other family members are also overweight, it’s natural to chalk up childhood obesity to genetics and studies show there’s some truth to that theory.
According to a February 2017 in the journal Economics & Human Biology, 35 to 40 percent of childhood obesity is inherited from parents. The more overweight parents are, the more overweight their children are likely to be, the same study found.
It seems however, that what the study authors dub “intergenerational transmission,” is a combination of both genetics and food environment.
Experts say that although genetics play a role in our propensity for many diseases including obesity, we can also “turn on” and “turn off” our genes with diet and lifestyle.
According to the Harvard School of Medicine:
“…genetic factors identified so far make only a small contribution to obesity risk-and that our genes are not our destiny: Many people who carry these so-called “obesity genes” do not become overweight, and healthy lifestyles can counteract these genetic effects.”
Parents influence their child’s obesity risk
The healthy choices parents make also have a significant impact on their child’s risk for obesity, and research backs it up.
Take a July 2018 study in the journal BMJ, which included data from the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII), one of the largest prospective investigations that look at the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women.
The study, which included more than 24,000 children, showed 5.3 percent of children became obese within 5 years, between ages 9 and 14.
Children whose mothers had a normal body mass index (BMI), participated in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 150 minutes a week, didn’t smoke and drank alcohol in moderation, were 75 percent less likely to become obese than children of mothers who didn’t have those healthy habits.
What are we feeding your kids?
Food environment, including the foods that parents bring into the house, pack for school lunch, order at restaurants, serve for family gatherings, and bring on play dates, to the park or for after-school sports also play a role in the childhood obesity risk.
This is particularly important when kids are young and can’t purchase food at the store on their own or eat out with their friends, for example.
Kids who have access to plenty of fruits and vegetables, are much more likely to eat healthy than those whose pantries are filled with processed junk food.
In fact, an October 2014 study in the Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that encouraging and modeling healthy eating, setting limits on foods, and having healthy foods available at home are all positively associated with kids’ diets and their weight.
Studies also show that eating family meals together increases the likelihood that kids will eat healthy and may reduce their risk for childhood obesity.
Regardless of how diligent we are at feeding our kids healthy, food is everywhere and it has created an “obesogenic” environment that’s hard for any parent to contend with.
The food industry alone spends $10 billion dollar a year on food marketing. Brands use bright colors and recognizable characters on their packages and target kids on social media.
Supermarkets strategically place kid-friendly foods in locations where kids are most likely to ask for them.
Fast food restaurants include toys in their meals and restaurants host “kids eat free” nights.
Schools serve cookies, ice cream and potato chips in the cafeteria and have food available in vending machines, school stores and in the classroom.
Food also shows up in the least likely of places at places like convenience stores, bookstores, museums, banks, the dry cleaners, and even at church.
Food is just one part of the puzzle
Parents also teach and influence their kids in habits that have nothing to do with food but still contribute to childhood obesity.
For starters, we know physical activity plays a part in preventing childhood obesity but studies show most kids don’t get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day.
Other habits like allowing kids to eat in front of the TV, have their devices at the dinner table or eat in the car—even if it’s on the way to practice—can also affect their weight.
Blaming parents isn’t the answer to childhood obesity
There’s no doubt that parents play a significant role in preventing childhood obesity. Regardless of how strong outside factors are, the onus is still on them to offer healthy foods and teach their kids healthy habits.
Positive change cannot occur however, if we blame parents.
Shaming parents for not reading to their kids, playing with their kids “enough” or even yelling when their kids misbehave, isn’t necessarily going to motivate them to be better parents.
Childhood obesity is a complex problem and the individual factors that affect a child’s weight can vary family to family.
For example, parents can eat healthy, exercise and encourage their kids to do the same, but if their kids are teens and would rather read a book, parents are limited in how much change they can affect in their kids.
Parental stressors may also affect a child’s risk for childhood obesity. According to a November 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics, multiple parental stressors such mental illness, employment status and financial strains are directly associated with a child’s risk for obesity.
When it comes to childhood obesity, I believe the solution is multi-faceted.
It starts with parents who want their kids to grow up healthy, know how to eat healthy and have healthy habits.
By educating ourselves, becoming aware of all the factors at play, seeking support from a pediatrician, a registered dietician nutritionist or a therapist, if necessary, we can stay the course and prevent childhood obesity.
When it comes to parenting, nothing is easy, straightforward or perfect, but it’s our job to stick with it.