Half of all parents ‘fail to spot’ child obesity

More than 50% of parents fail to recognise that their children may be seriously overweight – and many health professionals share this misperception, according to new research.

“Despite attempts to raise public awareness of the obesity problem, our findings indicate that underestimation of child higher weight status is very common,” said the project’s leader, Abrar Alshahrani, of Nottingham University.

The results, presented this weekend at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, are alarming because there has been a more than ten-fold increase across the world in numbers of children and adolescents with obesity in the past 40 years.

The number of girls classed as obese has increased from 5 million in 1975 to 50 million in 2016, and the number of boys from 6 million to 74 million. The research led by Alshahrani involved analysing evidence from past scientific literature and included 87 previous studies that were conducted worldwide between 2000 and 2018. These involved 24,774 children aged up to 19 years old and their parents.

In their study Alshahrani and colleagues analysed the assessments of parents, caregivers and healthcare professionals of children’s weights and compared these with recognised medical standards for defining “overweight”, including measurements of height, weight and circumference of waist and hip. Results showed that about 55% of parents underestimated the degree to which their children were overweight, while more than a third of children and adolescents also underestimated their own weight status. Healthcare professionals also shared these tendencies.

In addition, parents who were overweight themselves, and with less education, were also less likely to accurately assess their child’s higher weight. The authors noted that ethnicity and cultural norms may also have an effect on parental perceptions, as some cultures prefer a larger body type and may not identify their child as overweight.

Alshahrani said recognition of parents’ and health professionals’ views of children’s weight problems was extremely important. “The first step for a health professional in supporting families is a mutual recognition of higher weight status. This is particularly important for the children themselves, the parents, and the health professionals who look after them. Our study also found a tendency for health professionals to underestimate weight, which suggests that overweight children may not be offered the support they need to ensure good health.”


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