When parents think their child is overweight, that may increase the risk of that child packing on even more pounds, a new U.S. study suggests.
Previous research has found that parents are pretty bad at correctly guessing how much their children weigh. But the current study runs counter to the popular belief that kids might slim down when their mothers and fathers think they’re too heavy.
To see how parents’ ideas about children’s weight influenced future weight gain for kids, researchers from Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee examined data on 3,557 Australian children and their parents.
Children joined the study when they were 4 to 5 years old and researchers followed them until age 12 or 13.
At the start of the study, three quarters of kids were a normal weight for their height. About 20 percent were overweight or obese, while roughly 5 percent underweight.
Overweight kids became heavier if parents perceived them as heavy
The majority of overweight children at age 4 or 5 (80%) were seen as normal weight by their parents.
For the roughly one in five overweight kids whose parents saw them as heavy, their odds of becoming even heavier by the end of the study were much greater than if their parents didn’t see them as overweight at the beginning.
One limitation of the study: it relied only on weight and height measurements to assess whether children were at a healthy weight. The researchers didn’t look at another indicator of unhealthy weight known as adiposity, or excessive fat around the belly.
Researchers also lacked data on why parents thought children were overweight or what they did about it.
It’s not possible to say what’s going on without additional information about the parents’ weight status, socioeconomic status and information about resources in the community such as access to healthy foods and physical activity. Many factors, including poverty, consumption of soda and sugar sweetened juices, sleep time and exercise can all influence childhood weight.
Because parental perceptions of weight appear connected to future weight gain in the study, parents and other family caregivers may need to take a close look at how they interact with overweight children to ensure they don’t make the problem worse.
“Parents who perceive their child as overweight may also engage in weight conversations with their child, such as telling their child that they are fat and need to lose weight,” said researchers. Parents may also engage in food restriction behaviors if they perceive that their child is overweight.
Both – weight talk and food restriction – have been shown in prior research to be associated with childhood obesity.
Source: Pediatrics, online April 21, 2016.
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