Poll finds big gap between parents and experts: Parents less likely to recognize children as overweight or obese

Only 15% of kids have parents who say they are overweight, compared with national stats showing that 32% of young people are overweight or obese

Many families face challenges in trying to help children eat well and be more active

For Immediate Release: February 25, 2013

Boston, MA A new poll released today shows a large gap between parents’ perceptions of their children’s weight and expert definitions. According to their parents, 15% of children are a little or very overweight, while national data suggest more than twice as many, or 32% of all children, are overweight or obese. The poll was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

In addition, only 20% of children in households that participated in this poll had a parent who was concerned that his or her child will be overweight as an adult. However, it is estimated that 69% of adults are overweight, including 36% who are obese and an additional 6% who have “extreme obesity.” Together, these results indicate that parents may underestimate their children’s current risk for being overweight or obese, and how that risk could continue to impact them as adults.

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“We know that nearly one in three kids in America is overweight or obese, and that’s a national emergency,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF president and CEO. “Better nutrition and more physical activity can help turn this epidemic around, and parents have a unique role to play. Knowing the risks of obesity and dealing with the issue proactively can improve kids’ health now and prevent serious problems down the road.”

The poll assesses a nationally representative sample of children ages 2 to 17 through the eyes of their parents or caregivers who know what the youths ate, drank, and did the day before the poll.

“People often have a hard time making the connection between national problems and their own families,” said [[Gillian SteelFisher]], assistant director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) and research scientist in the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management. “Tackling these blind spots can be a difficult, even if necessary, element of public education.”

Despite its importance, many face challenges in helping children maintain or achieve a healthy weight

Although nearly all parents agree it’s important for their children to eat and exercise in a way that helps them maintain or achieve a healthy weight, many parents find it difficult to do. More than four in 10 children (44%) have parents who say it is difficult to make sure their kids eat this way, and roughly a third of children (36%) have parents who say it is difficult to make sure their kids exercise this way.

Between 3 p.m. and bedtime, children consume foods and drinks that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, according to parents. When examining what children ate in the afternoon, during family dinners, and after dinner during the school week, the poll found that more than half of children (60%) ate or drank something that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, as perceived by their parents.

In trying to help their children maintain or achieve a healthy weight overall, parents face problems in the community. For 43% of children, parents say the amount of advertising of foods that can lead to unhealthy weight gain presents a problem for them in trying to help their child achieve or maintain a healthy weight. For roughly a third of children, parents report that they face the following problems: many such foods are offered at lunch at school (33%); the costs of exercise equipment, gym memberships, or team fees is too high (33%); there aren’t good sidewalks near home, so the family drives instead of walking (31%); and there are few places that do not serve these foods where the child can spend time with friends (31%).

“These problems parents face are issues that community leaders can address with policy changes,” said [[Robert Blendon]], professor of health policy and political analysis at HSPH.

Family dinners may include challenges that contribute to obesity and overweight

Even among those who ate together at home, many were distracted by TV, cell phones, laptops, or iPods. While 70% of children live in households where the family ate dinner together at home on a given night, 24% had the TV on during dinner, or someone used a cell phone, a laptop, or an iPod during dinner. This means only 46% of children live in households where the family ate together without these distractions. Research suggests that meals without distractions, particularly TV, are associated with lower obesity rates.

Common family events may contribute to childhood obesity and overweight

Many children have parents who say foods and drinks that can lead to unhealthy weight play an important role in family events. Nearly all children (96%) attended family events in the past year where foods with high fat or sugar content, like chips, fried foods, fast foods, or sweets were served. Among those children, approximately half live in households where the parent feels that “family celebrations are a time to take a break from being concerned about eating in a way that can lead to unhealthy weight gain” (48%). Sizable shares of these children live in households where these foods are felt to be “an important part of family traditions” (39%) and where “it doesn’t feel like a celebration” without them (32%).

The poll is part of a series developed by NPR, RWJF, and HSPH.

NPR is reporting on the findings in an eight-part series, “On The Run: How Families Struggle To Eat Well And Exercise,” beginning today (February 25,  2013) on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Stories in the series are at www.NPR.org.

In addition, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is highlighting research and issue briefs that illustrate why it can be difficult for families across America to make healthy choices, and changes that are helping parents and kids eat healthier and be active. www.rwjf.org

Complete poll results will be found at www.rwjf.org, www.hsph.harvard.edu, and www.NPR.org.


Results came from a poll conducted in the fall of 2012 among caregivers of children in their home. Caregivers were primarily parents (87%), but also grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and foster parents. For simplicity, respondents are referred to as “parents” in this summary. A randomly selected child from that household was the focus of questions, and caregivers were screened for being able to answer questions about what that child had done the previous day in order to prevent biases in the estimates of children’s activities and consumption. Interviews were conducted Tuesday through Saturday so that respondents answered questions about the Monday-Friday work/school week. The poll was based on a nationally representative sample of households with children ages 2-17, developed from a randomized telephone sample (including both landline and cell phones).

The primary poll was conducted October 11 to November 21, 2012, among a total of 1,018 caregivers. The question about reasons for families not eating together (Question series 13ba-h) was asked as part of a follow-up poll conducted December 12 to 22, 2012, among a total of 264 caregivers. For the October/November portion of the poll, the margin of error for total households is +/-4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For the December follow-up, the margin of error for total households is +/-8.25 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In both cases, interviews were conducted by SSRS/ICR of Media (PA).

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size and composition, home ownership, cell phone/landline use and demographics of the child (sex, age, race/ethnicity, metro status, and census region) to reflect the true population of children in the country. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

The research team consists of the following members:

Harvard School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis and executive director of HORP; Gillian K. SteelFisher, research scientist and assistant director of HORP; Kathleen J. Weldon, research and administrative manager; and Eran Ben-Porath of SSRS/ICR, an independent research company.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, associate vice president, Communications; and Debra Joy Pérez, interim vice president, Research and Evaluation.

NPR: Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor, Science Desk; and Joe Neel and Alison Richards, deputy senior supervising editors, Science Desk.

For more information:

Marge Dwyer

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Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights. For more information on the school, visit www.hsph.harvard.edu

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter www.rwjf.org/twitter or Facebook www.rwjf.org/facebook.

NPR is an award-winning, multimedia news organization and an influential force in American life. In collaboration with more than 900 independent public radio stations nationwide, NPR strives to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures. NPR reaches a growing audience of 27 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit www.npr.org/stations