One can't open up a newspaper, magazine or trade journal without reading about childhood obesity. It appears to be the largest global health issue occurring today.
Globally, this epidemic affects every socioeconomic and ethnic group. Overweight children have a higher risk of developing diabetes, sleep disturbances and kidney problems, and they are more likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease as adults.
Articles abound citing the proliferation of fast food and the impact of advertising to children as key culprits. But the problem seems far more complex. While I am all for the greater availability of fruits, vegetables and healthier beverages in schools and for increasing physical education classes and nutrition education, it appears a fundamental piece of the solution may be missing: parental understanding. Do the majority of parents understand the impact of the problem and do they know if it is affecting their own child?
If you ask most parents whether they are concerned about their child being overweight, the answer will likely be yes. Yet, on a global basis, one of the top drivers parents give for purchasing certain foods is they "know their child will eat it." In the upheaval of daily life, parents constantly pick their battles, and the last one most of them want to fight is over meals. So they compromise.
So, when it comes to parental concerns about weight, the real question that should be asked at is "How concerned are you about obesity and overweight relative to everything else you are facing today?" And in spite of all the press and the studies and the looming health issues, it appears that, on a relative scale, parents are just not that concerned.
I looked at childhood health concerns in the HealthFocus Trend Report across five different countries selected pretty much at random - Australia, China, Germany, Mexico and the UK. There were 21 health concerns in the study for which parents were asked to rate their level of concern. The list included such things as immunity, food allergies, sleep, appearance of skin, hair and teeth, dental cavities and so on.
In Mexico, overweight ranked as the 13th concern out of 21, and that was the highest ranking it received anywhere. In Australia, it ranked 18th, Germany 16th, China 19th, and people in the UK ranked number 20. In the UK, using BMI standards, it is estimated up to 30 percent of boys and girls may be overweight; yet, in our study, only 14 percent of parents even registered weight as a concern at all. In every country, even bowel regularity outranked weight as a cause for concern.
But in an interesting contradiction, in all of the countries except Germany, "protection against disease in later life" showed up in the top five parental concerns. So parents do seem to think about the future but don't seem to register excess weight as something that will truly impact their child's future health.
One possible explanation may be they simply do not class their child as overweight enough to be at risk. In addition, going back to priorities, it may be that if their child is safe, appears healthy, is doing well in school and is otherwise happy, getting rid of a few extra pounds is not a parental priority.
In Arkansas, where an estimated 40 percent of children might be overweight or obese, a program was put in place to notify every parent of their child's BMI and risk of overweight. The effort included new school menus and physical activity programs. A recent update to the initiative reports a leveling off of the state's child obesity rate.
I won't pretend to simplify the solution to this complex issue. But while there are many facets to the problem, the Arkansas program might indicate a greater effort to educate parents and to involve them in the solution is required.
Barbara Katz is president of HealthFocus International, a consulting and market research company specializing in global consumer health and nutrition. The HealthFocus Trend Study is available for the U.S. and 30 other countries. Barbara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.