All adolescents and children older than six should be screened for obesity, according to a new report from The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force. This is the first time since 2010 that recommendations for mass screenings for obesity have been updated by the expert panel. USPSTF adds that clinicians should offer obese children intensive behavioral interventions.
“The task force examined the issue of screening and counseling for obesity in children, and recommends that private care clinicians screen children starting at age six,” Dr. David C. Grossman, chairperson of the USPSTF, told Fatherly. “Obesity is a serious problem in the United States. The problem is multifactorial and requires multifactorial interventions, including community-based solutions. The role of physicians and clinicians is to help parents recognize and understand when their child’s weight trajectory is starting to become a concern.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States are obese and that nearly 32 percent are overweight. Besides cardiovascular problems and diabetes, studies have also linked obesity to asthma, sleep apnea, orthopedic problems, and mental health problems, the latter of which are due, in part, to bullying.
In an effort to mitigate some of these harms, Grossman and colleagues released a report in 2010 that recommended mass obesity screenings for all children and adolescents. Now, seven years later, the USPSTF has revisited the data and updated their recommendations, with new evidence that screening children and adolescents can actually help make American healthier. Specifically, Grossman and colleagues recommend that primary care doctors assess the heights and weights of all children older than six, and use the Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine whether they are overweight or obese. If they are, the report recommends that the children spend 26 hours or more learning how to modify their diets and increase physical activity.
Although the recommendation seems fairly straightforward—check your kid’s height and weight, and make him eat veggies and exercise if he’s fat—experts have raised some potential issues. For one, BMI is far from a perfect measure of health. But Grossman maintains that, compared to other tests available, it’s still the most accurate. “No test is perfect,” he says. “However, the task force did examine this issue and determined that BMI remains the best available measure.”
Another potential problem? While intensive, 26-hour weight loss programs for adults are easy to find, expensive, customized programs for kids are seldom available to those who need them most. Low-income children, for instance, are disproportionately affected by obesity, but the pricey recommended intervention is seldom covered by insurance. Does it really make sense, then, to screen kids for a condition that they can’t afford to cure? “It’s a good question, and one which we are certainly aware of,” Grossman says. He adds that the more this sort of weight loss program is successfully implemented across the country, the more incentive there will be for clinics and grassroots organizations alike to make it accessible for poor kids, too.
“The task force doesn’t really make judgments about allocation of resources,” Grossman says. “We recognize that this is a problem that will require solutions from multiple sectors of society.”