A recent Diet Blog entry, Fat Kid Phobia: A Personal Rant, has provoked an interesting discussion in the comments section.
The center of the debate is the recent finding, published in the October 2006 issue of Public Health Nutrition, that 90% of parents of 5 to 6-year olds did not recognize their child was overweight. As Yahoo News brutally headlined it, Parents Blind to Fat Children, Study.
Jim (author of Diet Blog) wrote, "When my daughter looks up at me with her concerned eyes and asks "Daddy is my tummy too big?" - my answer is - "You are just beautiful the way you are".
Or I could glare at her with stern eyes. I could inform her that she is in the grip of an obesity epidemic. That she had better start eating less. That I would be watching everything she puts in her mouth. That she isn't quite good enough.
I have no doubt that I could annihilate her fragile self-esteem in a few minutes with such careless words.
I'm not ignoring the fact that there is an obesity problem and that there are many very real health consequences -- but who gets to decide my child is overweight -- and by what definition? Certainly parents and families can be educated about healthier lifestyles - but is fear-mongering and guilt a good way to do this?
Do I tell my daughters that they are not allowed to have round tummies or big thighs? Because if they do it might mean they are overweight. And if they are overweight then they are... what...? Sick? Unhealthy? Lazy? Unacceptable?"
Considering the full-court-press the issue of childhood obesity is getting in the media, schools measuring the BMI of children and sending home BMI report cards, public service messages targeting parents of overweight children, mandates for wellness programs in schools, and a plethora of other initiatives to reduce the indidence of childhood obesity, Jim's question and underlying concern is valid - it isn't only adults whom are hearing and seeing the messages that children are in trouble, kids are hearing and seeing those messages each day too.
And here we have a survey confirming what many have been saying for years - parents are blind to their childrens weight problem.
I wondered, just how is it possible not to recognize a child is overweight or obese?
For that answer I had to go to the full-text to read everything rather than depend on the short abstract, which didn't provide enough information to understand the protocol of the survey or how the research team crunched the numbers to reach their conclusions.
An interesting thing emerged in the full-text - the researchers used an international set of cut-offs for overweight and obese in children, first proposed in May 2000 in the British Medical Journal; so the CDC's calculator for children and teens is not useful here. In the BMJ article we find the standard used for this survey in Table 4 which provides the BMI points of overweight and obese:
Five year old boys:
BMI of 17.41 or less = normal/healthy weight
BMI of 17.42 to 19.29 = overweight
BMI of 19.3 or more = obese
Five year old girls:
BMI of 17.14 or less = normal/healthy weight
BMI of 17.15 to 19.16 = overweight
BMI of 19.17 or more = obese
For simplicity here, let's work with girls since one fear many parents have with daughters is the worry about creating eating disorders in their future if they send the wrong messages about weight and body image.
So let's use an example of a five-year old girl who is 3' 8" - 44" tall.
At what weight does she transition from normal to overweight? At what weight does she transition from overweight to obese?
Using the CDC BMI Calculator, to enter height and weight and find BMI, here are the results:
47-pounds = 17.1 BMI (normal/healthy)
47.5-pounds = 17.2 BMI (overweight)
53-pounds = 19.2 BMI (overweight)
53.25-pounds = 19.3 BMI (obese)
Of the 134 five-year-old girls measured in the survey, 21 were found to be "overweight" and 5 were found to be "obese".
As we can see from above, a half-pound can have a profound difference - a child weighing 47-pounds is normal/healthy, a child weighing 47.5-pounds is overweight, and a child somewhere between 47.5-pounds and 53-pounds is overweight...a very small margin of just six pounds difference between normal/healthy and obese.
Six pounds - is it any wonder parents might not think a child classified as "overweight" by the BMI isn't overweight?
I really have to wonder how many of the 21 girls classified as overweight were within a pound of normal/healthy? How many were within two pounds? Three?
This is just one example of many potential scenarios for a little girl who is five years-old; she may or may not have more or less lean body mass (muscle) compared with her peers; may or may not be laying down fat to enable a growth spurt in her near future; and may or may not have the same stature of another girl of the same height, where one little girl may be "sturdy" another might be "dainty".
But, these are things the BMI cannot measure. And this is where adult judgement has to come into play.
It's noteworthy that the researchers didn't try to measure the perception of other adults, specifically pediatricians or family doctors who are tasked with keeping an eye out for problems. Perhaps they could have taken it a step further too and asked the parents of the children in the study - ask them if looking at child A, B, or C would they consider the child, who is not their own, normal/healthy weight, overweight or obese?
I think that type of insight would be useful - I know if I were trying to judge between a child who is 47-pounds and one who is 48-pounds, I'd probably not recognize the 48-pound child as overweight - it's simply not a big enough difference to be an overt difference between the two children. Even a few pounds probably wouldn't set off alarm bells for most people when they're looking at two or three children who are close to the same weight.
But with the BMI standard, those few pounds make all the difference.
Jim said it nicely, "I'm not ignoring the fact that there is an obesity problem and that there are many very real health consequences...but is fear-mongering and guilt a good way to do this?"
This is a question we all need to ask ourselves and consider as we continue to turn up the volume in an effort to convince parents to pay attention to their child's weight.
We also need to be aware of what messages we are unwittingly sending to children - often very young children - as we adults try to find a solution to reverse the trends of overweight and obesity affecting our children.
As a parent I know it's hard to objectively assess my child - in my eyes he's perfect in every way.
It's hard to the assess my neice and nephew, my young cousins, and my cousins' children too. But then, when I step beyond the circle of family into the circle of friends it's much easier to "see" a problem, but then again, if we're talking a pound here or there, no way! Quite frankly, unless the child is really way to heavy, or having trouble in daily activity it's a tough call to make, especially since we're talking about kids who are growing and always changing right before our eyes!
I don't have the answer to how to reverse the trend of childhood obesity - I do see it, I do recognize it....and I do worry that how we're going about the solution may do more harm than good in the coming years.
I know it pains me to hear my five year-old neice say she doesn't want to get fat - she's tall and slim, but just barely registering in the 10th percentile for BMI-for-age; just as it pains me to see a little girl struggling at the playground because she's carrying too much weight on her little body.
There are no easy answers here. But if we get this one wrong - what will we have done to our future generation?
What are your thoughts?