Parents of healthy-weight and overweight preschoolers are generally well aware of dietary risk factors that fuel childhood obesity, as per study of the families of 150 0reschoolers. When it comes to obesity prevention, the focus tends to be on school-age children and teens, but a growing body of research has found a link between poor life-long health and being overweight as early as 2 years of age
The study, published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, also illuminates the gap between what parents know about the root causes of obesity and what they can actually do to maintain healthy diets for preschoolers, a group generally overlooked in obesity research and prevention.
The research, conducted by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and All Children’s Hospital in Florida, suggests that awareness alone is not enough to effect meaningful weight change, and that pediatricians should help parents with specific and tailored guidance on how to apply their knowledge in daily practice, the researchers said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define children with a body-mass index at or above the 85th percentile for their age as overweight. One-third of the 150 children in the current study were overweight, most from low-income urban homes, and more than 90 percent African-American.
The investigators set out to identify parental perceptions of risk factors for childhood obesity and barriers to healthy weight and to determine whether the parents of healthy-weight preschoolers viewed such risks and barriers differently from the parents of overweight children. They didn’t. The study found minimal to non-existent differences between the two groups. One important risk factor remained seriously overlooked by parents in both groups: physical activity.
Recent studies have shown that few preschoolers achieve healthy levels of activity, and most remain sedentary 85 percent of the time, the investigators say. The results of the study suggest that parents undervalue physical activity in an age group often perceived as “active enough,” and alerting parents to the risks of inactivity is critical in obesity prevention, according to Janet Serwint, M.D., of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
Nearly 40 percent of parents in both groups identified buying and preparing unhealthy food as the top contributor to weight problems at an early age. Similar numbers of parents in both groups (23 percent and 31 percent) cited using food as a reward for good behavior as a risk factor for weight problems. A nearly equal proportion of parents in both groups (25 percent and 23 percent) said that asking the child to finish food on the plate was the most critical contributor to overweight or obesity.
Importantly, one-third of parents from both groups (35 percent and 33 percent) identified lack of control over the child’s food choices as the top barrier to healthy weight
Daycare providers, grandparents and others involved in a child’s care are often just as important in achieving healthy-weight goals as the parents themselves.