When I started out as a dietitian in private practice, I saw one or two patients in their teenage years. Today, it’s a different story. Some of my colleagues say that half of their clientele is under the age of 18. Childhood obesity has been on the rise for more than a decade, but now it’s out of control.
Parents and Doctors Need to Find
Better Ways to Prevent Childhood Obesity
Parents often find it hard to address their youngsters’ weight issues. They don’t want to embarrass them or don’t think it’s that much of a big deal. In many cases, the adults in the family are overweight as well. They themselves feel helpless and confused in their efforts to cope with eating problems at home. The younger kids nag them for their favorite snacks and treats and the older ones make their own choices when they go out with their friends.
Many doctors are also ill-equipped to talk about nutrition, exercise and weight management. These subjects are still considered peripheral in most medical schools, although there have been some notable changes in recent years. Especially pediatricians seem to have difficulties discussing weight problems with their young patients. In a recently published study on the subject, researchers found that doctors often miss important opportunities to deal with early signs of unhealthy weight gain. That is highly unfortunate. “Focusing on these issues in overweight adolescents [could] give doctors a chance to stop unhealthy behavior that could be setting kids up for obesity before it’s too late. Once kids are obese, these behaviors are entrenched, and it’s much more difficult,” said the author of the study, Dr. Carolyn Bradner Jasik.
Nutrition experts agree that prevention of weight problems is the best option, especially when it comes to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly recommends that doctors do “preventive screening for the benefit of kids’ weight and health.” According to the study by Dr. Jasik, more obese children reported to have talked with their doctors about dieting and weight control, but that wasn’t the case with overweight kids. “There’s an increased recognition that obesity is a problem and physicians are starting to do more with the population that is defined as obese. But they still are neglecting this population that is on a trajectory toward developing obesity,” said Dr. Randall Stafford of Stanford University in California, an expert on obesity counseling.
Most pediatricians agree that preventive measures through counseling would greatly benefit children with weight problems as well as their parents who are ultimately responsible for implementing positive diet- and lifestyle changes in their homes. “It’s not like physicians don’t want to do these things, but whether they have the tools, have the time, and get reimbursed for these things makes a lot of difference,” said Dr. Stafford.
Of course, that is one of the big problems with prevention. Most insurance companies don’t pay doctors for preventive visits. The same goes for dietitians or nutritionists. Morbidly obese adolescents may be covered for weight loss surgery but not for weight-related counseling sessions. Parents who seek professional help for their kids before things get out of hand have to pay out of pocket.
Still, Dr. Jasik hopes that the alarming rise in childhood obesity will eventually change the current policies. Health experts and policy makers know full well that prevention would be the best solution – health-wise and bottom line – but so far there is not enough political will to follow that path.
Well-meaning initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program are laudable, but they don’t reach far enough. What is badly needed is a heightened awareness that childhood obesity has become a serious crisis with the potential of destroying the future of an entire generation. What is needed is a sense of urgency to take on this threat on every level and make it a priority for government, the medical community, parents, teachers and the kids themselves who suffer the consequences if we don’t stop this trend. “Preventing obesity needs to be a lot bigger, “ wrote Dr. Jasik in her report. “It requires efforts from the whole healthcare system and the community.”