1 in 3 Children Are Obese, And Their Parents Can’t Tell

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that when it comes to their children’s obesity, parents are not accurate judges. Specifically, the study found that parents are now worse at determining if their child is obese than ever before.

“Crucial to parental involvement in weight reduction or maintenance efforts among children is parental recognition of their child’s overweight status,” wrote the researchers in the study, which was published Monday. “This recognition and the associated health risks are the main driving force motivating parents to take action.”

To conduct this study, Zhang and his colleagues documented the weight and height of over 2,500 children from 1988 to 1994 and over 3,000 children from 2005 to 2010 using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. All parents were asked to answer if their child was overweight, underweight, just about the right weight or ‘don’t know.’

The researchers found that the parents of the children in the earlier set were significantly mistaken about their child — 78 percent of overweight boys and 61 percent of overweight girls had parents who labeled them as “about the right weight.” These values jumped to 83 percent and 78 percent (for boys and girls, respectively) in the 2005 to 2010 set.

“Overweight/obese children were less likely to be perceived as overweight in the recent survey compared with peers of similar weight but surveyed 10+ years earlier,” concluded the authors of the study. “The declining tendency among parents to perceive overweight children appropriately may indicate a generational shift in social norms related to body weight.”

The problem with this finding is that if parents cannot accurately identify a problem, they also cannot provide a solution. “Today, almost one out of every three kids is overweight or obese,” said senior author Dr. Jian Zhang of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, to Reuters Health. “They are at significantly increased risk of a number of diseases as they grow older, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis and cancer.”

Zhang added that studies “overwhelmingly show that parental perceptions of their child’s weight influence family readiness to foster healthy behaviors. Increasingly underestimating puts more kids at the risk of becoming overweight or obese.”

What exactly qualifies as an obese child? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity cannot be determined by a specific body mass index (BMI) number, which determines adult obesity. Instead, childhood obesity is relative to the other children of the same age and gender. As such, children with a BMI at the 95th percentile or higher are deemed to be obese and those between the 85th and 95th percentile are considered to be overweight.

While the ‘comparison’ approach works for pediatricians on a larger scale, Zhang explains that most parents compare their children to their peers and that adds to their misconception.

“We rarely compare our weight status against an absolute scale or a number recommended by doctors,” study author Dr. Jian Zhang of Georgia Southern University told Time. “Instead we compare to what our friends, neighbors and co-workers look like. If we look like most of others, we of course perceive that we are just fine. As the prevalence of pediatric obesity has tripled within decades, the socially accepted ideal body weight may also be shifting accordingly.”

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