Teens and Their Parents May Underestimate a Weight Problem
> 2/21/2008 1:29:54 PM

More schools and communities are fighting against childhood obesity, but recent research illustrates one factor that may undercut efforts to help children who are obese or overweight live healthier lives. Parents of overweight children often do not see their child as overly heavy, and a study published in this month's Diabetes Care found that when parents underestimate the seriousness of a child's weight problem, the child tends to do the same.

A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill interviewed over 100 teenagers and their parents about the teens' weight, diet, and activity levels. The participants were asked to describe their child or themselves as very overweight, slightly overweight, about right, slightly thin, or very thin. All of the teenagers in this study had type 2 diabetes, a condition associated with excess weight, but parents and teens both generally perceived the teen's weight as less problematic that it actually was, and if the parent underestimated the weight problem, the teen was likely to follow suit. While 87% of the teens in the study were overweight, only 41% of parents described their child as very overweight, while only 35% of the teens saw themselves as very overweight. Many parents thought their child's weight was “about right,” and among these parents, 40% had children with a body mass index (BMI) that was at or above the 95th percentile. 55% of the teens who said their weight was “about right” had BMIs at or above the 95th percentile. Not surprisingly, parents and teens who did not recognize the severity of the teen's weight problem also tended to have poor diet and exercise habits.

In December, researchers from the University of Michigan provided other evidence that parents often fail to see their children's weight as problematic. They surveyed over 2,000 children and parents as part of the National Poll on Children’s Health conducted by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. The poll's results showed that a quarter of children aged 6 through 11 were overweight or obese, but among the parents of these children, over 40% felt their child's weight was "about right." Only 13% of these parents felt that their child was overweight, and less than 10% felt concerned about their child's weight, which raises a central issue. If parents don't recognize the problem and don't feel concerned about it, they may not understand the necessity of helping their child modify their diet and other behaviors that may have contributed to their weight.

Overweight children and teens are likely to carry their excess weight into adulthood, and ensuring that these children and their parents recognize the severity of a weight problem may be a crucial step in helping them make healthy changes in their lives. Parents have a large influence over the behavior of their children and can provide support as their children move toward a healthier weight. And if the entire family commits to eating healthier food and engaging in more exercise, they will all feel the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

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