Recognising obesity in children

Issues such as comfort eating and sedentary lifestyle can contribute to an unhealthy weight in adults – and in children.

A report from NHS digital shows parents of overweight children often wrongly think their children are a healthy weight too. The report, which examines the body weight of children in England in 2015, reveals that 91 per cent of mothers and 80 per cent of fathers of overweight children thought their kids were a healthy weight. For obese children, 48 per cent of mothers and 43 per cent of fathers said their children were around the right weight.

The results support an earlier analysis of 60,000 children that found over half of parents of overweight or obese children fail to recognise a problem.

Why is it so hard to judge your children’s weight? The problem could stem from parents comparing their children with other children who are overweight. Research shows that obesity tends to cluster in social networks, and individuals in overweight friendship groups tend to gain more weight over time, the effect increasing with the strength of social ties. Furthermore, overweight children with overweight friends are less likely to realise they are overweight themselves , as are children with lots of obese classmates.

Another reason that parents may not see their kids as fat is that their frames of reference for obesity may be quite different from what doctors use. A 2001 study of mothers of children at risk of developing obesity found they considered their children to be a healthy weight as long as their activity and social functioning were unimpaired and they ate healthy foods.

According to Eric Robinson, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, telling children they have a weight problem is not necessarily the right way forward. Last month, he published a study showing that children of parents who see them as overweight are more likely to keep gaining weight. This might in part be due to the stigma associated with being labelled “fat” – which can lead to comfort eating in response. The weight gain might also be a consequence of ill-informed dieting attempts backfiring. Skipping meals, for example, may lead to more snacking between meals on unhealthy foods. “You could presume that the long-term health of people who fail to recognise that they are ‘overweight’ would be worse than those who do recognise they are overweight,” says Robinson. “However, the best available evidence suggests that you are probably wrong.”
So how can parents deal with their children being overweight without their best intentions backfiring? According to one study, a creative way teens can be successfully encouraged to eat more healthily is to educate them about how the junk food industry can be manipulative and deceptive. This encourages them to assert their independence, harnessing their rebellious streak.
For instance, you could tell them about recent evidence suggesting that the sugar industry cast doubts on the risks of sugar while painting fat as the real culprit. The result was decades of diet foods that replace fat with sugar. It is possible that products like these have contributed to the failure of overweight individuals’ attempts at weight loss.

Of course, parents should also set a good example and provide their children with tasty, healthy foods, while gently steering them away from junk food and bad habits.

Hypnotherapy can help with changing habits – encouraging a healthy relationship with food and exercise. Find details of qualified therapists on the National Hypnotherapy Society Accredited Register.