On Monday, a study found that just under a third of parents don’t see their child’s obesity as a health concern. Two days later, the same problem emerges from the other side. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the majority of overweight children don’t see themselves as being obese either.
Weight misperception is dangerous no matter what number the bathroom scale spits out — let alone among children, whose emotional instabilities allow their still-growing psyches to take quite the bruising. Normal-weight kids who see themselves as underweight may begin to overeat. Underweight kids can’t up their caloric load to reach a healthy weight. And, of course, obese kids, seeing nothing wrong with the current state of affairs, fall into the dangerous cycle of poor diet and lack of exercise.
Parents could be to blame. “As our country gets heavier, children don’t necessarily see [obesity] as abnormal,” Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director for the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, and who was not involved the report, told Time. Kids can’t be expected to form healthy conceptions of body weight if the only standards they see model obesity as the norm. Overweight parents are, on the whole, less health-conscious than trimmer parents, so they’ll naturally raise kids in an environment where personal health takes a backseat. Healthy food looks alien. Healthy people look skinny.
The CDC data found nearly 81 percent of overweight boys and 71 percent of overweight girls saw themselves as maintaining a proper weight. Among all children the agency collected data on between 2005 and 2012, weight misperception occurred roughly 30 percent of the time, or among 9.1 million children overall. Black and Hispanic children were more likely to overestimate their health if they were overweight, and boys more so than girls.
Childhood obesity in the U.S. is a growing problem, and both parents and health officials, and to a certain extent the kids themselves, all play a role in keeping kids chubby. Parents, on the one hand, already see their kids as healthier than they probably are — evidenced by Monday’s study. Along with this present-tense view, Neides says, they tend to lack a long-term vision, too. “We feel like young people are immortal and will be fine, and that population also doesn’t see the long-term implications.”
But, over the last 30 years, childhood obesity rates have doubled among kids and quadrupled among adolescents. Without healthy guiding forces to push them toward physical activity and fresh fruit, rather than day-old pizza and computer games, the cycle has no choice but to persist. Physicians aren’t innocent either. A 2011 study found fewer than a quarter of parents to overweight kids recalled hearing from the doctor that the child was overweight. To Neides, this was evidence obesity still carries a stigma, even to health care professionals.
“People are very sensitive to weight and to growth charts, and [parents] will argue it hasn’t been updated in years,” he said.
Education about healthy living may be the best antidote for the problem, as kids from higher-income families less often reported a misperception in their weight status than kids from lower-income families. This should make some sense, considering wealthier children not only have the privilege of better school systems, where they can learn how to stay healthy; they also have greater access to fruits and vegetables, which cost more and rot faster — two priorities low-income families tend not to make.