The beauty of one’s child is boundless in the mind of the parent, who sees only intelligence, humor, and limitless potential — and the tremendous responsibility to ensure that child’s health, welfare, and happiness. But that devotion can cloud an important reality: the child’s weight. With 17 percent of children in the U.S. qualifying as obese, this blind spot is potentially devastating.
A recent study published in Childhood Obesity showed many parents struggle to correctly identify if their preschooler was overweight, underweight, or within a healthy weight range. 95 percent of the responses from parents of overweight children were incorrect. This dovetailed with a survey conducted two decades earlier, when almost 97 percent of parents thought their overweight child was of normal weight.
Adding to these strikingly similar figures is the fact that obesity rates have climbed. “Instead of using clinical growth charts as the standard with which to compare their child, parents may be looking to peers at their child’s preschool and in their local neighborhoods as the standard,” Dr. Dustin Duncan, ScD and Assistant Professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine, said in an email, “and these peers may also be overweight or obese.”
In his work, Duncan led a team of researchers, who pulled data from the two studies of kids aged two to five. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which looked at 3,839 kids from 1988-1994 and 3,153 children from 2007-2015, organized the initial studies. While the numbers did trend downward slightly over the two periods, 78.4 percent of parents with obese children in the more recent survey perceived their children to be of normal weight.
Are parents simply blind when it comes to their child’s physical stature, or are they lacking information? Duncan thinks it’s the latter. “Parents of these young children might not understand what obesity means for their young children and/or think that their obese child will ‘grow out of it’,” said Duncan.
And that simple misunderstanding could be potentially costly. The American Heart Association ranks obesity, which can lead to high blood pressure and Type II diabetes, as the number one health concern for parents in the United States. Growth charts could help guide medical professionals and parents to determine if a child is overweight. Providing parents with this information appears to be a worthwhile solution. The study found parents who were aware their child was overweight tended to take action.
Another tool that can can be used is the CDC’s BMI calculator. The CDC notes that “For children and teens, BMI is not a diagnostic tool and is used to screen for potential weight and health-related issues. For example, a child may have a high BMI for their age and sex, but to determine if excess fat is a problem, a health care provider would need to perform further assessments.”