News article

Most Overweight Kids Don't Think They're Overweight

Posted:  Friday, August 01, 2014

Most children and teens who are overweight think that they are actually the right weight, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds.

Overall, about 30 percent of the children had misunderstandings about their weight: For instance, they were normal weight, but thought they were overweight or too thin; or they were overweight or obese but thought they were underweight or about the right weight.

But among the overweight children, most had misperceptions about their weight. The researchers found that 81 percent of overweight boys and 71 percent of overweight girls thought they were about the right weight. In addition, about half of obese boys and a third of obese girls thought they were the right weight.

While the majority of overweight kids incorrectly classified their weight status, general weight misperception in the study also meant that kids who were not obese could think that they were, or that they could incorrectly consider themselves underweight.

The data also shows that weight misperceptions tended to be slightly higher among boys than girls, and had a higher prevalence among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American kids. Weight misperception was significantly lower among kids and adolescents in higher-income families compared with kids in lower-income families.

Sadly, these are the same populations whose parents are more likely to be overweight, Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director for the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TIME. That suggests the possibility that overweight kids view their weight status as normal because that's what they see in their own families. "As our country gets heavier, children don’t necessarily see it as abnormal," he says.

The trouble is also that parents often don't want to hear that their child is overweight. Prior research has shown that only about a quarter of parents of overweight kids say a doctor has told them that their kids were overweight. "People are very sensitive to weight and to growth charts, and parents will argue it hasn’t been updated in years," says Neides. "We feel like young people are immortal and will be fine, and that population also doesn't see the long-term implications."

But overweight children is serious business. Kids are increasingly being diagnosed with diseases that usually only appear in adults, like Type 2 diabetes. A 2013 Harvard Medical School study also found a 27% increase in the proportion of children ages 8 to 17 with elevated blood pressure. "I am seeing people younger and younger coming into my office with osteoarthritis from weight," says Neides. "We weren't learning about kids with these problems when I was in medical school."

The new data should serve as a warning to families and physicians that young people are confused about their weight status, and that if overweight kids continue to believe they're the right weight, it could have detrimental effects on progress being made against the obesity epidemic.