Children Who Are Seen As Overweight By Their Parents Gain More Weight

by Meredith Bland

Children viewed as overweight by parents are at a greater risk of future weight gain

Among the many struggles parents have today is trying to keep our kids healthy in a country where the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years. We’ve received all kinds of advice about how to keep our kids active, how to feed them healthy foods, and, if they have a weight problem, how to work with them to solve it. New research, however, could make how we talk to our kids about their weight more complicated. More importantly, these findings apply to all kids, whether they are overweight or not.

In a study published today in Psychological Science, researchers looked at the results of two different longitudinal studies done on the issue and found that children whose parents identified them as overweight were more likely to gain weight as they grew up. As the study put it: “Parents’ identification of their children as overweight [has been] thought to be an important prerequisite to tackling childhood obesity, but recent findings suggest that such parental identification is counterintuitively associated with increased weight gain during childhood.”

One of the two studies researchers Eric Robinson (University of Liverpool) and Angelina Sutin (Florida State University College of Medicine) looked at contained data for over 2,800 Australian families. The study began when the children were ages 4 or 5, and asked parents to describe their children as underweight, normal weight, overweight, or very overweight. These families came back when the children were 12 or 13, and again at 14 or 15. What the research found was that “children whose parents considered them to be overweight at age 4 or 5 tended to gain more weight by age 14 or 15.” The weight gain was not explained by income level, medical conditions, or the weight of the child’s parents.

The heartbreaking crux of this research is that it didn’t matter whether or not a child was actually overweight — what mattered was whether or not their parents thought they were. It was the parent’s view of their child’s weight at age 4 or 5 that was associated with that child’s later weight gain. That means that some perfectly healthy 4-year-olds were seen as overweight by their parents and went on to become overweight as teenagers. That’s completely and utterly depressing.

All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy. We believe that if our children are overweight, then our job is to get in there and address it with them and help them get healthy. But if this research is correct then we don’t need to be looking at our kids and their weights — we need to be looking at ourselves. We need to look at how we view our children’s bodies and how we treat them as a result. We know that being verbally abusive and punishing a child who is overweight, for example, is not the way to handle the problem. But what should rock us all about these studies is the fact that what makes the difference could start with whether or not we treat our kids like they need to lose weight. And, sadly, that a weight problem is something we could be creating in what are actually healthy kids at normal weights.