Could you tell if your child is obese?

A new study says that a third of parents can't tell if their child is overweight


Is your child overweight or obese? It’s a question that according to new research, many parents find hard to answer. 


A new study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and published in the British Journal of General Practice, asked around 3,000 parents their views on whether their child was overweight or obese. 

Over a third (31%) of the parents couldn’t make an accurate estimate on a scale of underweight to obese. 

The research found that parents were only likely to think a child was overweight when they were at the extreme end of the overweight category and in the top 1% of children for their weight and height. 

Who did they ask and what did they find?

The study looked at the height and weight of reception and year 6 aged children in state schools in five areas of England, and converted the measurements to BMI for each child. BMI is divided into categories and the parents of these children were sent a questionnaire asking them to estimate whether their child was ‘underweight’, a ‘healthy weight’, ‘overweight’, or ‘very overweight’. 

Of the 2,976 parents asked only 4 recognised that their child was very overweight but according to doctors the number of ‘very overweight’ children was actually 369 children. 

According to official guidelines, children are classified as ‘overweight’ if their weight is in the top 15% of all children of that age and height – the 85th centile. They are ‘very overweight’ (or obese) at the 95th centile. 

Why can’t we see it?

It could be down to how we see ourselves and our own weight. “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,” said senior author Dr Sanjay Kinra, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

There may also be an issue around what’s a normal weight these days, although the study does not make this assumption.  

It’s not about puppy fat

Childhood obesity has increased in the UK in recent decades and obese children are at greater risk of premature mortality and disease in adulthood.

According to Public Health England, the latest figures for 2013/14 show that 19.1% of children in Year 6 (aged 10-11) were obese and a further 14.4% were overweight. Of children in Reception (aged 4-5), 9.5% were obese and another 13.1% were overweight. This means a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds were overweight or obese.

What else do we know?

Research led by NYU Langone Medical Center has shown that parents compare their children to others when assessing their child’s weight rather than consulting science backed growth charts. 

What can we do?

Dr Katz MD, MPH, Editor-in-Chief of Childhood Obesity and Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center – who has coined the phrase oblivobestity (oblivious to obesity) – believes parents should stop focussing on the weight but start making lifestyle changes. He says, “An obsession with weight and weight loss is not healthy. Weight is certainly not a measure of human worth. The focus instead should be on promoting health and avoiding the long-term consequences of obesity, as a family, by eating well, being active, and helping children lose weight in a loving and supportive environment”.  

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