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U.S. Pediatric Obesity Screening, Counseling Found to Be Uneven

With the U.S. facing an ongoing childhood obesity crisis, various groups have urged pediatricians to screen youths for obesity and provide counseling in recent years.

Despite this, a large number of overweight and obese children continue to go without being counseled about healthy eating habits or physical activity by health care professionals, according to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The study looked at data for a total of 13,881 adolescents (6,911 girls and 6,970 boys), ages 11 to 17, from the 2001-2007 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. The youths included in the study reported having visited at least one health-care provider in the past 12 months, and had both height and weight figures recorded, which allowed researchers to calculate their body mass index (BMI).

A child is considered overweight if he or she falls between the 85th and 95th percentile for BMI in the 2000 Growth Charts from the Center for Disease Control. Obese children exceed the 95th percentile threshold.

In general, obese boys and girls were more likely to be advised about healthy eating habits and exercise than adolescents at a normal weight, according to their findings.

Overall, 47 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys were advised to eat healthy, and pediatricians advised 36 percent of youths of both genders about the benefits of physical activity.

However, overweight children were 60 to 70 percent less likely to receive such counseling compared to their obese peers, a gap the researchers dubbed "significant."

"This is troubling because experts believe that obesity is easier to prevent than to treat, which implies that physician counseling for the overweight, but not yet obese, may have the greatest potential to prevent obesity later in life," the study authors wrote.

The likelihood of obesity screening and counseling appeared to depend on each family's geographic location, race, and socioeconomic status. Both boys and girls were more likely to receive obesity counseling if their parents obtained higher levels of education, had higher salaries, or lived in the Northeast, the study found.

The authors suggest that "policies designed to provide better continuity of care to adolescents" might help play an essential role in reducing the effects of youth obesity in the U.S., especially with low-income and minority children.

The findings from this study appear to align with a study published this past December in the Journal of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, which found that fewer than 25 percent of parents who have overweight children ever recall being told by a doctor that their child's weight was an issue.

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