Would you know if you had an overweight child? According to a new British study (*), of almost 3000 children, 31% of parents underestimated whether their child was classified as very overweight (obese), overweight, healthy weight, or underweight. Also only 4 parents described their child as being very overweight despite 369 children being classified as very overweight in the study. Overweight children are more likely to grow into being overweight adults than other children and that means greater risk of a shorter life and diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But if we don’t see the problem we’re unlikely to do something about it.
Normalisation of Obesity
One key reason is that now so many more adults are obese our view of what is a normal body shape has changed. When a child’s family and school friends are also overweight parents may think their child’s weight is normal compared to those around them.
Children’s Weight Measuring
Unlike for adults you can’t just put your child’s details into an online Body Mass Indicator (BMI) calculator. Because children are growing constantly their height and weight is adjusted for their age and sex. The official classification is that a child is overweight if their BMI is above the 85th percentile, and very overweight if BMI is above the 95th percentile. This just isn’t simple for parents to calculate.
Some parents may think their child just has a little ‘puppy fat’ and that as they grow they will lose it. Often this isn’t the case although some children do have some puppy fat but it tends to be when children are younger and is just before a major growth stage. This is often early childhood and then around 6 or 7 years.
It seems to be tradition to encourage building children up. We embrace and develop appetite from a young age. People ask about babies ‘is he/she a good feeder?’. We encourage children to clear their plates, or reward them with dessert for finishing a meal. This doesn’t encourage good eating behaviours.
‘Grow Into’ Their Weight
If your child is overweight keeping their weight steady over 6 months to a year is the best plan. That way the child ‘grows into’ their weight. It should be about eating better and being more active. There are no right or wrong foods or ‘treats’, better words are every day foods and occasional foods.
Three Part Program
Successful programs that help children to a healthy weight have three parts: improving what they eat and drink, increasing activity and changing unhealthy habits. Including the whole family in the changes works better rather than just targeting the child as does making activity fun based.
Measuring Your Child
Children get measured in primary school in reception year and year 6 as part of the National Child Measurement Program. Parents are notified in advance to gain permission and get results by letter. Otherwise a nurse or GP can help identify a child’s weight if you have any concerns or want to check your child.
* Black et al (2015). Child obesity cut-offs as derived from parental perceptions: cross-sectional questionnaire. British Journal of General Practice 65(633):e234-239