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Parents: What You Don't Know About Safe Weight Loss Could Harm Your Kids

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Parents without a high degree of health literacy could influence negative behaviors in their children, such as unsafe dieting tactics or weight-loss methods, according to new research.

A University of Illinois study found that about one in six - or 16 percent - of U.S. parents in the study had low health literacy, which is defined as the ability to understand and apply basic health guidelines to improve one's health.

For the study, researchers tested parents' health literacy by analyzing their ability to interpret nutrition information on the label of an ice cream container. The parents were also asked which methods they would consider using to help an overweight child lose weight.

Alarmingly, parents with low health literacy didn't select any of the recommended weight-loss practices when presented with a list of safe, neutral and unsafe methods for weight control.

"Parents with higher health literacy were more likely to check the recommended weight-control strategies, and it's concerning that parents with lower health literacy were significantly less likely to do so," said Janet Liechty, lead study investigator. "About 3 percent of the parents with lower health literacy also indicated that they would consider using unsafe tactics, such as having their child take laxatives or diet pills."

Information not reaching those who need it most

Even parents with a high level of health literacy chose some of the "neutral" practices, such as counting calories, which aren't considered dangerous but may not be the best strategies for children, Liechty said.

The study revealed that parents who need the most help when it comes to increasing their health literacy are not receiving it - either because they are consulting other, unreliable sources or they don't have Internet access to get information from governmental health agencies' websites.

Moreover, a multidisciplinary weight loss approach - which normally emphasizes areas like exercise, nutrition, lifestyle changes, and medical supervision - are generally not affordable for families, Liechty said.

"If a health care provider counsels parents that their child is overweight or obese and some behavior changes are needed, we need to do a more careful job of monitoring what the parent actually hears and does with that recommendation," Liechty said. "If parents tend toward unhealthy or ineffective methods, we need to make it easier for them to learn about recommended strategies that are safe and effective, and provide access to user-friendly resources."

Source: University of Illinois