Docs shy away from telling kids they’re heavy

In 1980, about 1 in 20 U.S. children and teens was overweight. Today, that figure is closer to 1 in 6. Abetting this unhealthy trend appears to be reluctance by physicians to discuss weight with their young patients or parents.

Researchers with the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., analyzed data that had been collected for 1,473 overweight children between 1999 and 2002 as part of a national health survey. The likelihood that a health professional had mentioned a weight problem varied with a child’s age and ethnicity, according to a report by Cynthia L. Ogden and Carolyn J. Tabak in the Sept. 2 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Some 52 percent of adolescents ages 16 to 19 were warned about their unhealthy weights, but the rate declined with age. Only 17 percent of families with overweight children under 6 were warned.

Among all overweight girls, nearly half of the blacks represented in the survey had been told they were too heavy, compared with just 37 percent of Mexican-American girls and 31 percent of white girls. One reason for this ethnic discrepancy, Ogden notes, is that more of the black girls than of the others were in the most-extreme obesity category for their age. Doctors may be discussing weight with only the heaviest individuals in any age group, Ogden says.

The data have a message, she adds: Health professionals should be more proactive at discussing unhealthy weight in children of all ages. Young children, especially, could benefit, she says, because studies have shown that they’re more receptive to suggestions that they increase physical activity and improve their eating patterns than older children are.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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