Junkfood Science: Actual pictures of childhood ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ surprised even most doctors

November 22, 2008

Actual pictures of childhood ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ surprised even most doctors

Researchers in England have inadvertently shown how silly the crisis of childhood obesity has become and how unrealistic the definitions are of overweight and obesity in children. We continually hear parents accused of being in denial and incapable of recognizing their children’s weight “problems.” It turns out, few doctors can correctly identify children in the overweight and obese categories, either. Why might that be?

Media has successfully convinced everyone that we’re in the midst of an epidemic of enormous, deathly-ill children. The real picture of most children falling in the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories look much like healthy, active growing children. Kids have always come in a range of shapes and sizes, plumping up and shooting up with growth spurts. Kids haven’t changed nearly as much as perceptions and definitions.

Researchers, led by Dr. Sally Smith at York Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust in York, UK, used photographs of 33 children, aged 10-17 years and a variety of BMIs, taken in exactly the same lighting, pose and distance. The photos were randomly numbered and faces concealed to protect their identities. Eighty healthcare professionals, including 30 pediatricians, 20 general practitioners and 30 pediatric nurses in the Yorkshire region were recruited and shown the photos and asked to match them in six weight categories based on the new BMI-based child growth curves.

The authors just reported their findings in Archives of Disease in Childhood. Only 29.5% of the medical professionals correctly assessed the children in the 91st-98th percentile and only half could correctly identify the largest children above the highest 98th percentile. Their accuracies were similar to studies on mothers.

“This study suggests that health professionals in general are poor at assessing weight status clinically,” the authors wrote. The NHS Foundation Trust authors said that while the Department of Health has made it clear doctors should not be screening for obesity, they felt that doctors should be able to clinically observe it in children. Their interpretation of their study’s findings was to call for the need for formal training of medical professionals to enable them to better recognize and manage obesity.

The authors didn’t stop to consider the definitions, themselves, or if they were sound measures of health. Most likely, seeing what most children in the overweight and obese categories really look like was an eye-opener for the medical professionals.

The finding of greater concern and which highlighted a potentially more harmful consequence of the war on childhood obesity was not even noticed or mentioned by the authors. A full 18.8% of medical professionals failed to recognize the underweight children and thought they were fatter than they really were, and another 5% thought the normal weight children were too fat. The obesity hype has not only created an exaggerated vision of the crisis of child obesity, but our perceptions of idealized thinness have downsized to equally unrealistic pictures.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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