Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 28, 2023

Parents ignorant of causes of childhood obesity

By ANNE MCGOVERN | May 3, 2012

Recently, a study conducted by the Hopkins Children’s Center and the All Children’s Hospital in Florida found that parents misunderstand the risk factors involved with the onset of early-childhood obesity. The study showed that though parents appreciate the importance of good nutrition and dieting, they greatly underestimate the value of physical activity.

“Talking to parents about their child’s weight is a very sensitive issue,” Raquel Hernandez, Assistant Professor in the Hopkins Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, said.

“A lot of times providers will identify a child as obese, but are afraid to open up such a touchy subject.” Hernandez set out to identify what parents understand about obesity in young children, in the hopes of later developing methods for pediatricians to fill in perception gaps and discuss what really needs to be done.

In the study, parents of both overweight and healthy-weight children aged two to five ranked a set of statements, from most to least important, about behaviors and risk factors involved in maintaining a healthy weight for their children. The results showed no difference in perception between parents of both weight groups: they both valued diet control and nutrition, while greatly underestimating the importance of physical activity.

“When you see a two or three year old, they’re usually pretty active: bouncing off the walls, asking too many questions…and most people would consider this age-group very active. But there’s a difference between being aerobically active and socially active. Parents tend to overestimate how active their preschooler really is,” Hernandez said. “Sure, they can be active from a developmental standpoint, but it’s not on the same level that we as physicians and scientists think is enough to be healthy.”

Early-childhood obesity is a problem that has not been studied extensively. Usually, treatment and methods for getting parents involved are aimed at children who are slightly older.

“I want to move [this issue] forward and try to figure out what is it that a pediatrician should be doing to talk to parents more effectively,” Hernandez said. She plans to use the results of her study along with her experience as a pediatrician to delve deeper into this field and develop new treatment methods.

“Educating residents and providers about this particular nuance in preschooler obesity is extremely important... we have to overemphasize the physical activity component in order to get parents to realize that it’s an issue....developing more standardized interviewing protocols for providers to use with preschool parents will really help get those difficult discussions to happen.”

Currently, Hernandez is working on a new fitness and diet program for preschoolers in Florida. “The idea is to provide appropriate physical activities for young children. At this point, most methods are aimed at older kids,” Hernandez said.

“We’re working with development experts to figure out what kinds of activities will engage young kids, and help parents to engage them as well.”

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