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Study Finds Parents Underestimate Obese Children's Weight

Study Finds Parents Low-Ball Obese Children’s Weight

A new study has found that parents of obese children may not be able to recognize their child is overweight, unless they are at very extreme levels of obesity.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University College of London (UCL) Institute of Child Health, a research partner of Great Ormond Street Hospital, also found that parents are more likely to underestimate their child’s weight if they are black or South Asian, from more deprived backgrounds, or if their child is male.

As childhood obesity has increased in the UK, the government has put in place interventions to tackle the problem, the researchers noted. But it was suggested that many parents can’t identify when their child is overweight, leading to questions about the effectiveness of current interventions designed to address obesity in the home.

The research team set out to look at this problem and identify socioeconomic factors that may predict a parent’s inability to estimate their child’s weight correctly.

Questionnaires were filled out by the parents of 2,976 children in five primary care trusts taking part in the National Child Measurement Program: Redbridge, Islington, West Essex, Bath and North East Somerset, and Sandwell.

The researchers discovered that 31 percent of parents (915) underestimated where their child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) sat on government obesity scales, which classify children as very overweight (or obese), overweight, healthy weight, or underweight.

In fact, the researchers report they found only four parents described their child as being very overweight despite 369 children being officially identified as very overweight according to the BMI cut-off.

According to official guidelines, children are classified as overweight at the 85th centile and very overweight (or obese) at the 95th centile. The researchers found that for a child with a BMI at the 98th centile there was an 80 percent chance the parent would classify their child as healthy weight. Parents did become more likely to classify their child as overweight when the child had a BMI above the 99.7th centile, the researchers found.

“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, a reader in Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-lead investigator of the PROMISE trial.

Co-author Professor Russell Viner, academic pediatrician at the UCL institute of Child Health and PROMISE co-lead investigator added: “Measures that decrease the gap between parental perceptions of child weight status and obesity scales used by medical professionals may now be needed in order to help parents better understand the health risks associated with overweight and increase uptake of healthier lifestyles.”

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, is part of the PROMISE (Pediatric Research In Obesity Multi-Modal Intervention And Service Evaluation) study, a five-part project that aims to improve the assessment and treatment of childhood obesity through research.

Source: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine 

Study Finds Parents Low-Ball Obese Children’s Weight

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Study Finds Parents Low-Ball Obese Children’s Weight. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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