A new study from the Health Department suggests that many parents are failing to recognize weight problems in New York City ’s children. When parents are questioned about their 6- to 12- year-old children, they report that less than a fifth of their kids (18%) are slightly or very overweight. When the same parents are asked whether a health care provider said their child was overweight during the past year, the proportion answering yes is even lower (13%). Yet objective measures suggest that two to three times that proportion – some 40% of the city’s public school children – are in fact overweight or obese.
The findings come from the Health Department’s first-ever comprehensive survey of child health in New York City . Besides revealing large gaps in adults’ perceptions of children’s weight, the study also highlights various behaviors that are contributing to the obesity epidemic, including a lack of exercise and the large amounts of time children spend watching TV or playing video games. The new data underscore the critical need for individual and community efforts to get children moving and to improve their diets.
The objective measures come from NYC FITNESSGRAM, a tool the Department of Education uses to record height, weight and fitness measures among New York City school children each year. The 40% rate of overweight and obesity has not budged in the past two years, nor have the disparities among children in this age group. Hispanic children suffer the highest rates (46%), followed by black children (40%), white children (34%) and Asian children (31%). The problem is also more common among boys (43%) than girls (38%).
“Obesity is a serious, widespread condition plaguing children,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. “It increases the risk of diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – all potentially lifelong health problems – as well as heart disease and cancer during adulthood. It is critical that we protect children now, by creating environments that foster good nutrition and plenty of physical activity.”
The new survey indicates that many parents are missing an important warning sign about their child’s future health, which points to a need for health care providers to bring it to their attention, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents who reported their child’s health care provider discussed weight issues with them were more likely to perceive their child as overweight. Eight in ten children whose parents reported that a medical provider said they were overweight were also perceived as overweight by their parents, compared with only one in ten children without a provider-mention of being overweight.
“Each doctor visit presents an opportunity for an open, honest dialogue about a child’s weight and how to stay healthy,” said Dr. Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner for Chronic Disease Control and Prevention. “Key changes, such as cutting out sugary drinks, increasing physical activity and reducing screen time, should be discussed preventively. The City is also working to make sure environments where children spend their time, such as schools, daycare centers and after-school programs, offer healthy food and plenty of opportunities for physical activity. Families, medical providers, community partners and government agencies must work together to turn around the epidemic of child obesity.”
According to parents surveyed, one third of NYC children ages 6 to 12 years old (33%) watch TV or play video games for three or more hours on an average weekday. These children are more likely to be perceived as overweight than those who watch less (25% versus 15%).
Children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, but parent surveys suggest that only 40% of the city’s 6- to 12-year-olds are getting that much activity outside of school. Parents reported that one child in 10 (11%) did not get even one hour of physical activity in the past week outside of school. Children described as getting at least one hour of physical activity outside of school in the past week were half as likely as inactive children to be described as overweight (16% versus 32%).
Some ways the City is working to curb childhood obesity:
- More than 750,000 schoolchildren now have their weight and fitness levels assessed annually in public schools with NYC FITNESSGRAM report cards. Each report card includes suggestions for healthy eating and physical activity.
- The Department of Education uses a curriculum called Move to Improve to help schoolchildren get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day. The Health Department mandates 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children in the daycare centers it regulates.
- Since 2008, all City-funded meals in schools, daycares, after-school programs and other child care settings have had to meet rigorous nutrition standards. Starting this year, vending machines in schools must also meet higher nutrition standards.
- The Health Department’s Public Health Detailing Program has visited hundreds of healthcare providers to provide training and resources to combat obesity in children.
- City agencies collaborate on several initiatives aimed at healthy eating including the City’s FRESH project to encourage new supermarkets in high need areas, efforts to increase Farmers Markets in low-income areas, and targeted programs – such as Green Carts, Healthy Bodegas, and Health Bucks – to help increase access to healthy foods in areas with high obesity rates.
- The City sponsors educational campaigns to raise awareness about the consumption of sugary drinks, a major contributor to childhood obesity.
Some ways families can improve children’s health:
- Dump the sugary drinks. Sugary beverages such as soda, sports drinks and sweet teas contribute to childhood obesity. Fruit juice is also high in sugar, so serve it in small glasses. Tap water, low-fat milk and seltzer area all good choices for kids.
- Cut back on the fast food. If you do buy fast food, choose options with lower calorie counts.
- Make sure your children get at least an hour of physical activity per day. Options include walking, biking, dancing, playing basketball, swimming – whatever they like that keeps them moving.
- Turn off the TV and the computer. Limit screen time to an hour a day.
- Talk to a health care provider about how to help your child maintain a healthy weight.
Data sources: Child Health Survey 2009 and NYC FITNESSGRAM data
The Child Health Survey is a population-based, representative telephone survey conducted by the Health Department in 2009. A parent, guardian or other knowledgeable adult (referred to as “parents” above) was interviewed about the health of one child in the selected household for a total sample of 3,002 children. All estimates are weighted to the NYC population of children ages 0-12 using the 2006-2008 American Community Survey (PUMS).
The Health Department and the Department of Education use NYC FITNESSGRAM to measure children’s weight and height, as well as their fitness. More than 1.2 million NYC public school parents and students in grades K through 12 received an NYC FITNESSGRAM report in June 2009.