Is it Baby Fat—or Obesity?

February 5, 2010

You can’t trust your eyes
Most parents probably feel pretty confident that they know whether their child is overweight or not. The research tells a different story: A large proportion of the parents of overweight children—and especially mothers, who are surveyed more often—do not perceive their children as overweight. In some studies, the percentage of parents who don’t realize (or won’t admit) that their child is overweight has been reported to be as high as 80% to 90%.

It’s not entirely clear what accounts for this disconnect. For starters, many parents define obesity differently than health professionals do, and distrust the growth charts used by pediatricians. In a focus group discussion that was excerpted in the journal Pediatrics in 2001, one mother of a preschooler defined an obese person as someone who “can barely walk.” Other mothers denied that their children were fat or overweight, and instead used words like “big-boned,” “chunky,” and “solid” to describe them.

Susan Carnell, PhD, a research fellow and childhood obesity expert at the New York Obesity Research Center, attributes the failure of parents to accurately assess their child’s weight to changing social norms. Not only are kids heavier than ever before, but roughly two-thirds of adults are also overweight, and parents who are overweight themselves are less likely to identify their children as overweight, Carnell notes.

“We gain many of our perceptions from comparison with peers,” she says. “So if we compare a healthy-weight child with their overweight classmates, we may even think they are too skinny and try to feed them up.”

Social values and beliefs may also distort a parent’s perception. Parents are more likely to overestimate the weight of their daughters, for instance, perhaps because they feel it is less acceptable for girls to be heavy. Similarly, some studies suggest that parents of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds have different conceptions of body type and overweight.

Next page: The doctor may not bring it up

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