Student Well-Being

Study Finds Many Parents Misjudge Overweight and Obese Children’s Weight

By Evie Blad — February 10, 2014 2 min read
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Cross-posted from Schooled in Sports.

Roughly half of parents worldwide with overweight or obese children believe their children are a healthy weight, according to a meta-analysis published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers reviewed 69 articles involving nearly 16,000 children, ages 2 to 18, which reported the rate of parents’ underestimation of their overweight or obese children’s weight. They also analyzed 52 articles reporting parents’ underestimates of their normal-weight children.

Across all of the articles analyzed, 50.7 percent of parents underestimated their overweight or obese child’s weight. Among parents of normal-weight children, 14.3 percent underestimated their child’s weight.

“Parents who underestimate their kids’ weight may not take action to encourage healthy behaviors that would improve their child’s weight and reduce their risk of future health conditions,” said lead author Alyssa Lundahl, a graduate student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to USA Today.

The researchers discovered parents to be more likely to underestimate the weight of their obese children between the ages of 2 and 5. According to one of the studies reviewed in the analysis, “parents of young children believe their children will eventually ‘grow out’ of the excess weight.”

Parents were also more likely to underestimate weight of overweight and obese children with lower BMIs. That suggests parents are “able to detect excess weight in extreme amounts, but tend not to be alarmed by small amounts of overweight,” the researchers wrote.

About one-third of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are considered either overweight or obese, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Previous research has suggested that overweight and obese children are far more likely to be overweight or obese as adults compared to normal-weight children.

Thus, the stakes are high when it comes to parents’ perceptions of their children’s weight. If parents routinely underestimate the weight status of their children—which, based on the findings of this study, seems to be the case—it could prove detrimental in the long run.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this disconnect between parents’ perceptions and their children’s actual weight. A poll released last year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 73 percent of parents think their children are “about the right weight,” while only 1 percent believed their child to be “very overweight.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.