Only 15% of Kids Have Parents Who Say They are Overweight, Compared with National Stats Showing that 32% of Young People are Overweight or Obese; Many Families Face Challenges in Trying to Help Children Eat Well and Be More Active

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Newsroom
2/25/13

Princeton, N.J.—A new poll released today shows a large a gap between parents' perceptions of their children's weight and expert definitions. According to their parents, 15 percent of children are a little or very overweight, while national data suggest more than twice as many, or 32 percent of all children, are overweight or obese. The poll was conducted by NPR,the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

In addition, only 20 percent of children in households that participated in this poll had a parent who was concerned that his or her child will be overweight as an adult. However, it is estimated that 69 percent of adults are overweight, including 36 percent who are obese and an additional 6 percent who have "extreme obesity."1 Together, these results indicate that parents may underestimate their children's current risk for being overweight or obese, and how that risk could continue to impact them as adults.

"We know that nearly one in three kids in America is overweight or obese, and that's a national emergency," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, RWJF president and CEO. "Better nutrition and more physical activity can help turn this epidemic around, and parents have a unique role to play. Knowing the risks of obesity and dealing with the issue proactively can improve kids' health now and prevent serious problems down the road."

The poll assesses a nationally representative sample of children ages 2 to 17 through the eyes of their parents or caregivers who know what the youths ate, drank, and did the day before the poll.

"People often have a hard time making the connection between national problems and their own families," said Gillian SteelFisher, PhD, assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program and research scientist in the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management. "Tackling these blind spots can be a difficult, even if necessary, element of public education."

Despite its Importance, Many Face Challenges in Helping Children Maintain or Achieve a Healthy Weight

Although nearly all parents agree it's important for their children to eat and exercise in a way that helps them maintain or achieve a healthy weight, many parents find it difficult to do. More than four in 10 children (44%) have parents who say it is difficult to make sure their kids eat this way, and roughly a third of children (36%) have parents who say it is difficult to make sure their kids exercise this way.

Between 3 p.m. and bedtime, children consume foods and drinks that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, according to parents. When examining what children ate in the afternoon, during family dinners, and after dinner during the school week, the poll found that more than half of children (60%) ate or drank something that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, as perceived by their parents.

In trying to help their children maintain or achieve a healthy weight overall, parents face problems in the community. For 43 percent of children, parents say the amount of advertising of foods that can lead to unhealthy weight gain presents a problem for them in trying to help their child achieve or maintain a healthy weight. For roughly a third of children, parents report that they face the following problems: many such foods are offered at lunch at school (33%); the costs of exercise equipment, gym memberships or team fees is too high (33%); there aren't good sidewalks near home, so the family drives instead of walking (31%); and there are few places that do not serve these foods where the child can spend time with friends (31%).

"These problems parents face are issues that community leaders can address with policy changes," said Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard School of Public Health.

Family Dinners May Face New Challenges that Contribute to Obesity and Overweight

Even among those who ate together at home, many were distracted by TV, cell phones, laptops, or iPods. While 70 percent of children live in households where the family ate dinner together at home on a given night, 24 percent had the TV on during dinner, or someone used a cell phone, a laptop or an iPod during dinner. This means only 46 percent of children live in households where the family ate together without these distractions. Research suggests that meals without distractions, particularly TV, are associated with lower obesity rates.

Common Family Events May Contribute to Childhood Obesity and Overweight

Many children have parents who say foods and drinks that can lead to unhealthy weight play an important role in family events. Nearly all children (96%) attended family events in the past year where foods with "high fat or sugar content, like chips, fried foods, fast foods or sweets" were served. Among those children, approximately half live in households where the parent feels that "family celebrations are a time to take a break from being concerned about eating in a way that can lead to unhealthy weight gain" (48%). Sizable shares of these children live in households where these foods are felt to be "an important part of family traditions" (39%) and where "it doesn't feel like a celebration" without them (32%).

The poll is part of a series developed by NPR, RWJF, and Harvard School of Public Health. For more information please visit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation newsroom.

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