KIDS
July 29, 2014

Overweight And in Denial

Kids can have inaccurate ideas about their own weight. Parents, too. What helps.

Over a third of our nation’s youth tip the scales at an unhealthy weight, but you might be surprised to learn who doesn’t recognize the problem. Both overweight children and their parents are wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to their weight and not seeing the problem for what it is, according to two recently published studies.

The facts on childhood obesity, as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are these:

  • Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.
  • In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

When a child is overweight or obese, there are both immediate and long-term effects. Obese children are more likely to have health issues that were once only seen in adults: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, prediabetes or diabetes, joint and bone problems, as well as sleep apnea.

And then there are the social and psychological implications — such as loneliness and a lack of self confidence — that come with growing up fat in a nation obsessed with being slim.

Long-term, overweight children are likely to carry their extra weight with them into adulthood, increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. A generation will see a poorer quality of life, and the cost to the American healthcare system will soar.

What? Me, Overweight?

How do we fight this war on childhood obesity when the kids themselves don’t see their weight as a health issue? Even more troubling is the fact that their parents are in denial.

About 30 percent of the 8- to 15-year-old children surveyed for the CDC report did not see their weight realistically. The inaccurate perceptions work both ways. Some children whose weight is in the normal range perceived themselves as overweight or too thin, while kids who were overweight or obese often believed their weight was normal or even that they were underweight.

Boys were more likely to perceive their weight incorrectly than girls.

It was this group, the overweight and obese children, who had the most misperceptions about their weight. Eighty-one percent of overweight boys and 71 percent of overweight girls thought their weight was normal, and 48 percent of obese boys and 36 percent of obese girls said their weight was about right.

Boys were more likely than girls to perceive their weight incorrectly. Those from poorer families and ethnic groups with higher rates of adult obesity were more likely to think they were thinner than they actually were.

Until kids, parents and healthcare workers understand that many kids have completely wrong ideas about their weight, we can't begin to effectively address the problem, the CDC researchers say. “Accurate weight status self-perception has been linked to appropriate weight control behaviors in youth. Understanding the prevalence of weight status misperception among US children and adolescents may help inform public health interventions.”

Parents Can Be Part of the Problem, Or Part of the Solution

Another piece of the misperception problem is parents. Parents of overweight or obese children generally don’t believe their children's weight makes them unhealthy, a second study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found.

The study, of parents of children enrolled in an obesity program in which 94 percent of the children were classified as clinically obese, reported that parents did not believe their children's weight had any impact on their health.

Some parents simply can't believe that their overweight child or teen, the picture of youth, could be developing serious health problems.

Over 200 parents of children enrolled in a program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, were asked whether they were ready to improve the eating habits and physical activity levels of their children. Almost a third of the parents thought that their child’s health was very good or excellent and didn’t consider their child’s weight a health issue.

What is behind these misperceptions about children’s weight? Is it a lack of knowledge about what a healthy weight looks like? After all, with nearly 35 percent of American adults obese and about as many children and teens, perhaps people are starting to perceive this as the norm.

It seems that some parents simply can't believe that their overweight child or teen, the picture of youth, could be developing serious health problems. If a parent is overweight as well, that, too, may make them somewhat blind to the problem.

A sobering concern is the thought that parents’ perceptions of their child’s weight affect what and how they feed their child. If they don’t see that there is a problem, the child will continue to be fed the foods and taught the poor eating habits that made them overweight in the first place.

Make Some Changes at Home

Sadly, obesity puts children and teens at greater risk of a variety of illnesses when they reach adulthood, and even an early death. Even sadder is that some parents don’t get it.

Criticizing children about their weight or eating habits is no help at all. Parents' involvement needs to happen at the table and in the refrigerator.

Having an accurate idea about your child’s weight is the first step. If your child's doctor has expressed concern about his or her weight, you need to take that concern to heart. If your child is more than a few pounds overweight, do not expect that as your child grows, he or she will magically lose those excess pounds. Unless their eating and exercise habits change, it is more likely they will add additional pounds.

Begin to consider making some changes to create a healthier environment — healthier eating, increased physical activity, and better understanding of eating patterns and the health problems being overweight can bring. Without correct perceptions on the part of the child and the parent, change will be hard to bring about.

Criticizing children about their weight or eating habits is no help at all. And for teens, parental involvement in weight-loss efforts can be damaging rather than helpful. Parents' involvement needs to happen at the table and in the refrigerator.

There’s a song about rose-colored glasses. You know the one. It ends with “….lay these rose colored glasses aside.”

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