Pediatricians can now predict the risk of severe obesity in early childhood when a child is as young as 6 months old. But as a child grows, how well do parents recognize if their kid is becoming obese?
Not very, according to a new study in the journal Obesity. If a child is overweight or obese, the vast majority of parents underestimate their child’s weight status. In fact, parents are far more accurate at perceiving their own obesity than that of their children.
“Parents are so important to their children’s health, no matter what age the kids are,” said study co-author Janet Lydecker, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University School of Medicine. “Identifying obesity is obviously important in deciding if treatment is something that should be on the parents’ radar.”
Other studies have found that parents are bad at recognizing pediatric obesity, yet few have investigated why that misperception occurs. Lydecker and co-author Carlos Grilo surveyed 1,007 parents online about their personal attitudes toward eating and weight. Parents were also asked to provide height and weight measurements for themselves and their children, and label themselves and their children as either underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese.
Forty-seven percent of parents with obesity based on a measure of body-mass index — a controversial measure of body fat content — perceived themselves to be obese, yet parents with obese children only labeled the children as such 10 percent of the time. “Even though we talk a lot about childhood obesity in the public, people don’t know if it is relevant to them on a personal level,” says Lydecker.
That could be because parents simply don’t know what an overweight or obese child looks like, says Lydecker, or it could be due to a fear of stigmatizing a child. Yet that label, for all its negative connotations in society, also provides a red flag to doctors and parents that a child has an increased risk of serious health conditions related to excess fat, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. If parents can recognize those risks early, they can intervene to establish healthy eating and exercise habits.
Overall, the researchers found that there were no universal reasons why parents underestimate their child’s weight. Even a parent’s attitudes about his or her own weight — such as regular dieting or being unhappy with one’s body — had only a small effect on how the parent perceived their children’s weight. On the upside, as children get older, parents get better at gauging their weight status.
Perhaps the most effective way to help parents recognize obesity is for pediatricians to bring it to their attention, said Lydecker. Once the problem is recognized, then the physician and parents can work together and decide the best way to intervene.