As more parents, educators, and physicians struggle with the rising obesity levels of American children, a troubling issue has emerged: doctors are afraid to discuss a child’s weight problem. Obesity is a chronic disease with a variety of causes, including lifestyle, health conditions, culture, economic status, and psychological factors, so when doctors allow their patients to walk out of their office without mentioning weight issues, they essentially allow their young patients to live with an untreated disorder.
Many of the doctors who do address children’s weight continue to see barriers that prevent patients from receiving proper treatment, including ignorance and the inability of our society to fully acknowledge the devastating consequences of childhood obesity. The vague labels used to describe children with weight problems (children who are overweight are referred to as “at risk for overweight,” while those who are obese are referred to as “overweight”) obscure the seriousness of the health crises these children face. Many children now suffer from high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other serious medical conditions that were previously seen almost entirely in adults. Complicating the problem is the fact that many doctors shrink from discussing the solution: weight loss. Parents can be critical of a doctor who tells them their child needs to lose weight, and some parents do not understand why weight loss is necessary. Denial may also be a problem, as many parents of overweight children are overweight themselves and are unwilling to make changes that will improve their own health as well as the health of their children.
Doctors must talk about a large and increasing number of topics with their young patients during short visits, and often weight issues are left out of the discussion entirely. At the same time, the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased at an astounding pace. Children and their parents need to be aware of the strategies they can take to improve children’s health, but first, physicians have to be comfortable talking to them about these strategies and about the dangers that accompany obesity. Once doctors and their patients can readily discuss the problem of childhood obesity, they can begin to make appropriate changes.