Parents in UK unable to tell if their children are obese

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A new study has revealed that British parents are unable to tell whether their children are obese or not and are only able to identify it when the obesity has reached extreme levels.

The study, led by London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and UCL Institute of Child Health, research partner of Great Ormond Street Hospital and published in the British Journal of General Practice, also says that parents are more likely to underestimate their child’s obesity if they are Black or south Asian (v white), from more deprived backgrounds or if their offspring is male.

Childhood obesity has increased in the UK in recent decades and with obese children being at greater risk of premature mortality and disease in adulthood, interventions to tackle obesity have been put in place by the government. But, research has suggested that many parents can’t identify when their child is overweight leading to questions about the effectiveness of current public health interventions which aim to address obesity in the home.

The research team set out to look at the scale of this problem further and identify socioeconomic factors that may predict parental under or overestimation of their child’s weight. Questionnaire responses were collected from parents of 2976 children in five primary care trusts taking part in the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) ; Redbridge, Islington, West Essex, Bath and North East Somerset and Sandwell.

The researchers found that 31 per cent of parents (915) underestimated where their child’s BMI sat on government obesity scales – which classify children as very overweight (or obese), overweight, healthy weight, or underweight.

Highlighting this discrepancy, they found that only four parents described their child as being very overweight despite 369 children being officially identified as very overweight according to the BMI cut-off.

According to official guidelines, children are classified as overweight at the 85th centile and very overweight (or obese) at the 95th centile. The team estimated that for a child with a BMI at the 98th centile there was an 80 per cent chance that the parent would classify their child as healthy weight but recognised that parents became more likely to classify their child as overweight when the child had a BMI above the 99.7th centile.

Senior author Dr Sanjay Kinra, Reader in Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-lead investigator of the PROMISE trial, said: “If parents are unable to accurately classify their own child’s weight, they may not be willing or motivated to enact the changes to the child’s environment that promote healthy weight maintenance.”

Co-author Professor Russell Viner, academic paediatrician at the UCL institute of Child Health and PROMISE co-lead investigator said: “Measures that decrease the gap between parental perceptions of child weight status and obesity scales used by medical professionals may now be needed in order to help parents better understand the health risks associated with overweight and increase uptake of healthier lifestyles.”