Parents 'do not recognise obesity in their children'

Obese boy One in three children in England leave primary school overweight

Childhood obesity is a growing problem, but parents are often surprised, even angry, when told that their child is too heavy.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, consultant paediatrician Professor Mary Rudolf, who advises the government on obesity, asks why it is so difficult to recognise when children are overweight.

Do you know whether your child is overweight?

Most of us are aware that obesity is a problem, and we may even know that the UK is in the middle of a child obesity epidemic.

But many parents are unable to tell when their own child is overweight.

A National Opinion Poll involving over 1,000 parents of children aged four to seven showed that only 14% of those with an obese child considered that their child was overweight.


The problem is that we have all adjusted to overweight as being the norm. Understandably, parents compare their own child with the children around them.

Start Quote

Did you know that a healthy ten-year old's ribs should be clearly visible? Many parents would consider that such a child was quite underweight.”

End Quote Professor Mary Rudolf Obesity expert

When one in three children at primary school is overweight, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify when a child has a problem.

Did you know that a healthy 10-year-old's ribs should be clearly visible?

Many parents would consider that such a child was quite underweight.

Parents are not alone in having difficulty recognising when children have an unhealthy weight.

Studies in the US and the UK show that health professionals often underestimate children's weight too.

When shown pictures they invariably mis-categorise children as being a healthier weight than they are, unless the child is exceptionally obese.

In fact, health professionals do not even recognise when they themselves are overweight; a good half of those who were overweight reported that their weight was healthy!


In 2005, the National Child Measurement Programme was introduced in primary schools.

The programme was introduced to monitor the epidemic in childhood obesity, by weighing and measuring all children as they start primary school and again in their last year.

In many areas, parents receive a letter to let them know the outcome and how healthy their child's weight is.

Some feel surprise and even anger if they are told that their child is overweight.

They have difficulty marrying up the term 'overweight' with the healthy child in front of them.

The lack of recognition is very common.


Another reason for the lack of knowledge may be that the media often portrays and highlights extreme cases of child obesity.

Most children identified by the National Child Measurement Programme do not look obviously overweight.

By comparison to the images shown of very obese children in the media, they look slim.

Yet lesser degrees of being overweight and obesity can be accompanied by health concerns and are a marker for obesity and health problems later in life.

The letter is not intended to make parents feel they have failed in any way.

Information is offered to help them make positive decisions about their child's lifestyle.

Many parents, while not necessarily welcoming the information they receive, have taken it as a 'wake-up call' to ensure that their family become more active and develop healthier attitudes to eating.

Schools have also taken the impetus to make sure that children under their care spend time in a healthier environment with better opportunities for healthy food choices and physical activity.

Lifestyle changes

Once obesity is established, it is extremely difficult to reverse, as most of us know.

Less serious levels of being overweight can more easily be reduced by lifestyle changes.

It is for this reason that it can be so helpful to inform parents when their child's weight is of concern.

Without doubt, the introduction of the National Child Measurement Programme has been controversial, but hopefully most parents will appreciate that it offers the potential for improving children's lives and protecting them from the very real problems that accompany obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.

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