Family Matters

Most Parents of Overweight Kids Don’t Hear It from the Doctor

Less than a third of parents of overweight kids and just over half of parents of very obese kids are informed by their physicians. What's the problem?

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Parents hate hearing that their kids are fat. It’s far more delicate for doctors to use the term “overweight.”

But even providers who’ve mastered the art of informing parents in a tactful way that Junior needs to slim down aren’t necessarily sharing that information with parents. Just one quarter of parents of overweight kids say they’ve been told by a doctor that their kids weighed too much, according to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

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The percentage of doctors telling parents that their children are overweight has increased in the past decade, but not enough are doing so — or they’re apparently not communicating in a manner that’s sinking in.

“Parents might be more motivated to follow healthy eating and activity advice if they knew their children were overweight, but very few parents of overweight children say they have ever heard that from their doctor,” says Eliana M. Perrin, lead author of the study and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Medicine, in a statement.

Researchers at UNC looked at 4,985 children ages 2 to 15 years old who had a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile; data on the children were collected between 1999 and 2008 as part of a national survey.

In 1999, just 19% of parents recalled a doctor informing them that their child was overweight. By 2008, that percentage had climbed to 29%, which was a step in the desired direction. Still, only 58% of parents of very obese children reported hearing the news from a doctor.

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Why aren’t more doctors having this conversation? Undoubtedly, some prefer to avoid what couldn’t help but be an unpleasant exchange. Yet it’s hard to imagine a physician ignoring an increasingly prevalent risk factor for unhealthy outcomes: researchers estimate that one in three U.S. kids are overweight.

Assuming doctors broach the subject, the key to motivating and not alienating parents is sensitive language, according to a September study in Pediatrics that found that mom and dad cringe if they hear their darling described as “chubby” or “fat” or “obese.” Parents prefer that doctors simply raise the topic of a child’s weight, using terms such as “high BMI” or “unhealthy weight.”

“Many people find the term ‘fat’ to be pejorative and judgmental,” says Rebecca Puhl, the study’s lead author and  director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “A lot of the time, providers have positive intentions, but the language they use can be seen as blaming, accusatory and not helpful.”

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