It’s hard to be objective about your own kid’s weight, and a new study in the British Journal of General Practice shows just how off-target parents can be. Just a fraction of parents with overweight or obese kids felt that their kids actually fell into one of these categories – the vast majority said their children were normal weight.
The research took place in the UK, but similar studies have found the same phenomenon in the US, where child obesity is perhaps even more of a concern. The problem is that childhood obesity can pose serious health problems not just in the present but in the future, too. So what we don’t see now may come back to haunt not just us, but our kids.
The researchers from University College London studied nearly 3,000 families in five regions in the UK who were taking part in the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). They measured the children’s BMI, which in Britain is broken down into three categories: normal weight, overweight (above the 85th percentile), or very overweight (i.e., equivalent to obese in the US, above the 95th percentile). The team also asked the kids’ parents what BMI group they thought they fit into.
It turned out that parents were extraordinarily poor at determining whether their children were overweight or obese. Of the 369 kids who were very overweight, only four parents thought they were. When the researchers analyzed the numbers further, they saw that for a given child with a BMI in the 98th percentile, a whopping 80% of parents would say that the child was normal weight. It would take a child being in the 99.7th percentile for the parents to even say the child was overweight, let alone very overweight.
The study also found that parents of boys and those from families of lower socio-economic status were especially likely to underestimate their children’s BMI. Parents south Asian or African-American descent were even more likely to underestimate their kids’ BMI.
The main explanation for parents not identifying their child’s weight problem is that the common perception of ‘overweight’ has become skewed as society as a whole has become heavier. But the discrepancy could have major health consequences, says Dr. Sanjay Kinra, the study’s lead author. “If parents are unable to accurately classify their own child’s weight, they may not be willing or motivated to enact the changes to the child’s environment that promote healthy weight maintenance,” she explains.
This is certainly not the first study to show a disconnect between parents’ perception of their kids’ weight and their actual weight. Some studies have even shown that kids’ perceptions of their own weight can be skewed.
And all of this is an issue not just for kids in the present: As the childhood obesity crisis heightens across the globe, it’s almost sure to affect their health as adults in the future. Studies have shown that when people are overweight or obese as kids, their risk for developing chronic diseases like heart disease as adults goes up. Some research has even found that risk for other health problems like hypertension and diabetes, among others, also increases, even during early life.
Parent’s role in preventing childhood obesity
Helping parents recognize and accept the overweight status of their children and the associated health risks may be a crucial step in motivating them to make positive weight-related behavioral and nutritional changes, says Dr. Kinra. Important steps that parents can take include:
- Incorporate healthier foods into the family’s diet (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein) and limit consumption of processed foods (e.g., sugary beverages and meals with high amounts of refined sugar, starch, salt or fat).
- Sit down to enjoy nutritious meals with their children. Research has shown that children readily like foods presented in positive contexts.
- Monitor and limit children’s media use (i.e., TV, internet and video games) as prolonged television and computer use have been linked to childhood obesity.
Although parents play a crucial role in childhood obesity prevention, researchers also point out that policy changes are needed to reinforce parent’s efforts. For instance, while nearly all parents agree that it’s important for their children to eat a healthy diet and stay physically active, nearly half say they face major challenges such as unhealthy school lunch choices, limited or no sidewalks, or lack of access to healthy restaurants. Parents can help to encourage policy changes by working with local or city government in the following ways:
- Let’s Move — the federal government’s new initiative against childhood obesity — is devoting $400 million in grants to bring grocery stores and farmers’ markets to underserved communities. Parents can encourage their local leaders to apply for these grants.
- Parents can also push for the introduction of affordable transportation (e.g., bus or shuttle lines) to supermarkets or grocery stores currently located outside their communities.
- Parents can call for local leaders to improve their land use policies by encouraging the construction of parks or playgrounds and restricting further encroachment by fast food establishments into their neighborhoods. Local governments can also promote the use of vacant land for community gardens or farmers’ markets.
- Parents can advocate for increased community policing to enhance neighborhood safety for their children.
- Parents can push for more after-school programs that incorporate physical activity or nutrition education.
- Parents can pressure schools to eliminate the use of vending machines on school grounds.