Obesity has become a common nutritional concern among low-income, preschool children, a primary target population of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Nutrition counseling efforts in WIC target childhood obesity, but new approaches are needed that address the different perceptions about obesity that are held by clients and health care professionals.
To develop these new approaches, we examined WIC health care professionals' perceptions about the challenges that exist in preventing and managing childhood obesity.
A qualitative study using data transcribed from audiotapes of focus groups and individual interviews. We independently read each transcript and coded themes; then, the common themes were selected through group meetings of the authors.
Of the 19 health care professionals participating, all had provided nutrition counseling in WIC and all but one were white women.
Twelve major themes clustered into 3 domains. The first domain centered on how WIC health care professionals perceived the life experiences, attitudes, and behaviors of the mothers they counseled. They perceived that mothers (1) were focused on surviving their daily, life stresses; (2) used food to cope with these stresses and as a tool in parenting; (3) had difficulty setting limits with their children around food; (4) lacked knowledge about normal child development and eating behavior; (5) were not committed to sustained behavioral change; and (6) did not believe their overweight children were overweight. The second domain described WIC health care professionals' perceptions of counseling interactions. They felt that (7) they might offend mothers when talking about weight, (8) counseling was driven by protocols, and (9) their nutritional advice often conflicted with the advice from the mothers' relatives, friends, or primary care physicians. The last domain described programmatic suggestions WIC health care professionals offered to address childhood obesity: These included (10) promoting a more client-centered approach to counseling, (11) establishing behavioral change goals that were small and endorsed by the mother, and (12) working with primary care physicians to create a more uniform approach to counseling on obesity.
To become more responsive to the problem of childhood obesity, WIC should consider the following: (1) providing staff training in counseling skills that educate parents on child development and child-rearing and that elicit the client's social context and personal goals, (2) shifting time allocation and programmatic emphasis in the WIC visits away from nutritional risk assessment and toward counseling, and (3) developing collaborations with primary health care providers and community agencies that impact childhood obesity.