Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Poll suggests disconnect between parents' perception and reality of their children's weight

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There's a gap between child obesity rates and how parents perceive their children's weight.

A new poll shows that only 15 percent of parents consider their children "a little" or "very" overweight, even though about a third of the nation's children and teenagers are overweight or obese.

The poll (full results here) was conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Researchers also found that among the households they surveyed, only one in five had an adult present who was concerned her or his child would be overweight as an adult. But with 69 percent of U.S. adults qualifying as overweight – and 36 percent falling into the obese category – pollsters said the other 80 percent may be underestimating their children's risk of being overweight later in life.

South Los Angeles has an especially severe problem with obesity compared to the rest of the county. Nearly 24 percent of L.A. County adults are obese, according to the latest figures; that shoots up to 33 percent on the southside.

Child obesity rates in the region aren't that much better. Data from 2008 shows that nearly 30 percent of children in South L.A. were obese, a rate that was among the county's highest; to contrast, the best rate in the county that year belonged to Manhattan Beach, where only 3.4 percent of children were obese.

Other findings from the survey on parents' perception of obesity:

  • 81 percent of parents think obesity is a serious problem, but only 20 percent of children in the poll had a parent who was concerned the child would be overweight later in life.
  • When parents did consider their child overweight, 60 percent said they were either "somewhat" or "very" concerned. That remaining 40 percent were "not very" or "not at all" concerned.
  • Nearly nine in 10 children ate and drank in a healthy way during what researchers called "crunch time" – between 3 p.m. and bedtime. That's according to parents, anyway – even though 48 percent and 18 percent of children were reported to have eaten sweets and fast food, respectively.

Parents' perceptions, in other words, may be in major need of some fine-tuning.

Crunch time

Pollsters focused on that window of time after school and before bedtime, noting that even though parents have more influence over what their children eat and do during that timeframe, it's usually a time "when many are racing home from work, arranging for their children's extracurricular activities, trying to monitor homework, and getting ready for the next day."

Here's what the poll revealed about that timeframe, which surveyors dubbed "crunch time":

  • Virtually all (95 percent) of children live with parents who agree that a healthy weight is important – but 44 percent of children have parents who say it's difficult to make sure their children eats healthy. Thirty-six percent of children have parents who express the same sentiment about exercise.
  • During crunch time, 60 percent of children are eating something that could lead to unhealthy weight gain, according to their parents. Of those children, 79 percent did so because their parents don't "mind if they have these foods/drinks sometimes," as long they eat healthy in general.
  • According to parents, 28 percent of children aren't getting enough exercise during crunch time.

Parents also report obstacles to helping their children maintain a healthy weight that go beyond crunch time:

  • 33 percent say unhealthy foods are offered at lunch at school.
  • 33 percent say the cost of exercise equipment, gym memberships or sports team fees are too high.
  • 31 percent say there aren't good sidewalks near the family home, so the family drives instead of walking.
  • 31 percent say there aren't many places for their children to hang out with friends that don't serve unhealthy food.

The poll also suggested that family events where unhealthy foods are plentiful are "fairly common" – 46 percent of parents said their children attended events like that at least once a month over the past year.

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