Can the perception of a child’s weight cause weight gain?

Child on weighing scales

Researchers from the University of Liverpool and Florida State University College of Medicine have found that a parent’s misperception of their child’s weight can impact on the child’s actual weight.

Parents of children who are overweight often fail to accurately identify their child’s weight. Although these misperceptions are presumed to be a major public health concern, there has been little research focused on examining whether parental perceptions are protective against weight gain during childhood.

Dr Eric Robinson from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society and Assistant Professor Angelina Sutin from Florida State University College of Medicine examined whether parental perceptions of a child’s weight were associated with weight gain across childhood.

The paper, entitled ‘Parental Perception of Weight Status and Weight Gain across Childhood’, has been published today (21 April 2016) in Pediatrics.

Parental perceptions

Data from the ‘Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’ was used to assess parental perceptions of child weight status and to examine changes in researcher measured child BMI-Z (Body Mass Index) scores across childhood, from 4 to 13 years old.

BMI-Z scores are measures of relative weight adjusted for child age and sex. Given a child’s age, sex, BMI, and an appropriate reference standard, a BMI z-score (or its equivalent BMI-for-age percentile) can be determined.

3,557 Australian children and their parents participated in this study.

Future weight gain

Children whose parents perceived their weight as being ‘overweight’, as opposed to ‘about the right weight’, gained more weight (increase in BMI-Z score) from baseline to follow up in all analyses. This finding did not depend on the actual weight of the child; the association between perceiving one’s child as being overweight and future weight gain was similar among children whose parents accurately and inaccurately believed their child was overweight.

Dr Eric Robinson, said: “Contrary to popular belief, parental identification of child overweight is not protective against further weight gain. Rather, it is associated with more weight gain across childhood.

“Further research is needed to understand how parental perceptions of child weight may counter-intuitively contribute to obesity.”

The full study can be found here.

Child on weighing scales

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