One-third of the nation’s children are carrying too much weight, and researchers are beginning to uncover that medical professionals are leery of proactively discussing weight issues with their patients. A recent study revealed that, even though 39% believed that treatment of obesity by physicians has the potential to be effective.

“Displaying posters on eating habits in patient exam rooms can have a positive impact on patients.”

 Given the sensitivity with young patients in particular, medical professionals often respond vaguely with nonspecific health instructions such as, “lose some weight” and/or “get some exercise.” Unfortunately, these vague commands result in gaps in care. Many parents of obese children often walk out of the doctor’s office just as confused as when they came in. As with any other chronic health problem, the challenge of low literacy may also impact how patients understand the information they are presented. Studies indicate that one of three American adults have limited health literacy skills. Although providers can’t cure all physical illnesses their patients face, childhood obesity and the potential of lifelong diabetes are conditions that physicians must try to proactively prevent and treat.

Be Visual

Community clinics that routinely deal with family obesity issues have found that displaying posters on eating habits in patient exam rooms can have a positive impact on patients. Being visual is an important strategy that can be easily implemented to address this problem. “Seeing is believing” when it comes to height and weight charts. Hanging a colorful height and weight poster of boys and girls ages 2 to 12 in physician offices can be a helpful asset in teaching parents about weight guidelines, and how they correlate with the numbers and body shapes. Posting this visual tool may facilitate discussions with patients too.

Portion Problems

Discussing the “portion distortion” is also essential to battling childhood obesity. Young families are growing up in a fast food and family restaurant era. These franchises equate value with putting the most food as possible on a typical diner’s plate, but this teaches inappropriate food portioning at meals. Additionally, buffet-type, all-you-can-eat style restaurants encourage eating much more at a meal than the body needs. The biggest demographic victims of this dining strategy are those in the lower income strata and those who are more likely to have low health literacy. Talking to patients and quizzing them about appropriate meal portions is a good place to start when discussing weight. As part of a discussion on quantities to serve, providing patients with effective visuals that compare serving sizes with concrete, tangible examples can be of benefit (see Table).

A Call to Action to Do More

Physicians and their staff need to help tackle obesity early on and do more to help families stave off unhealthy medical futures. The hope is that as caregivers become more proactive about the childhood obesity epidemic and initiating treatment strategies earlier that clinicians can begin to curb this growing problem.

References

The Institute for Healthcare Advancement has released a new book titled “What To Do For Heavy Kids.” Written at a 5th grade level, the book provides parents and families with easy-to-use information to ensure the entire family supports one another in living a healthy lifestyle. For more information about the book, visit www.iha4health.org.

How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. FDA. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/UCM078889.htm. Accessed February 17, 2010.

Pagnini D, King L, Booth S, Wilkenfeld R, Booth M. The weight of opinion on childhood obesity: recognizing complexity and supporting collaborative action. Int J Pediatr Obes. 2009;4:233-241.

Rao G. Childhood obesity: highlights of AMA Expert Committee recommendations. Am Fam Physician. 2008;78:56-63.

Slusser W. Family physicians and the childhood obesity epidemic. Am Fam Physician. 2008;78:34, 37.