Obese children’s parents say kids are ‘about the right weight,’ likely comparing them to other kids instead of growth standards

Most parents of overweight children consider them to be “about the right weight,” which poses a real concern because parents aren’t likely to help their children change their behaviors toward weight reduction if they don’t recognize there is a problem, according to a study from the NYU Langone Medical Center.

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“Parental recognition of their child’s overweight status is paramount in childhood obesity prevention efforts,” says the report. “Previous research has shown that parents with accurate perceptions have a greater readiness to make weight-related changes in health-related behaviors and are more effective in doing so.

Kentucky ranks sixth among the states for obesity among preschoolers, with 15.5 percent of 2-to 4-year-olds from low-income families considered obese, according to the “States of Obesity” report. This percentage has remained consistent for several years, but it’s worth noting that in 1989, only 9.4 percent of of this population was considered obese. “Children who are overweight or obese as preschoolers are five times as likely as normal-weight children to be overweight or obese as adults,” says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, published in the journal Childhood Obesity, analyzed data from two groups of children over two time periods from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one between 1988 and 1994 and the other between 2007 and 2012, both samples had over 3,000 children. The survey asked parents whether they considered their child, ages 2–5-years-old, to be overweight, underweight, or just about the right weight.

Nearly 97 percent of parents of overweight boys in the earlier group identified their sons as “just about the right weight,” compared to 95 percent in the second group; 88 percent of parents of overweight girls thought they were “just about the right weight” in the first group, compared to 93 percent in the later group. Experts have dubbed this misperception “The Goldilocks syndrome.”

Notably, the researchers said that “the children in the second study group were significantly more overweight than the children in the first study group, yet the parents’ perception of their children remained relatively unchanged.” In fact, “the misperception became more prevalent in the recent survey given that an estimated 30 percent reduction in correct perception was observed, compared to the earlier survey,” says the report.

“It shows that essentially we’re more obese as a society and we’re not recognizing our obesity as a society, in this case in children,” Dustin Duncan, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, told Lisa Flam on NBC’s “Today” show. “Obesity is a well-known medical condition associated with immediate and long-term health risks for children. This is an alarming finding.”

The study also found that these misperceptions were more pronounced among the African-American families. “This was especially concerning because African-American and low-income children in the U.S. have the highest rates of obesity,” Duncan said in the release.

One reason given for these misperceptions is that parents often compare their own child to other kids in deciding if their child is overweight instead of using science-backed growth charts. The authors also noted that poor communication between parents and their pediatricians could also contribute to these misperceptions.

“We need effective strategies to encourage clinician discussions with parents about appropriate weight for their child. This will be critical for childhood weight management and obesity prevention,” Jian Zhang, senior author of the study, said in the release.

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