Overweight and obese people often think they weigh less than they do, and many mothers of chubby kids view their children's bulk as normal, new research finds.
The study of women and children conducted at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City found that faulty body image was far more prevalent among the heaviest participants than people of normal weight.
"The implications of this is the overwhelming impact of obesity on children who are growing up in communities where obesity and overweight is the norm rather than the exception," said lead author Dr Nicole Dumas, a medical resident at Columbia.
"It sort of skews their image of what they see as being a normal or healthy weight," Dumas added.
Obese moms don't see a problem
The 111 urban moms - whose average age was 39 - and 111 children were asked to choose a silhouette that best represented their own body size. About 66% of the mothers were overweight or obese, as were 39% of their children, who ranged from seven to 13 years old.
Of the obese women, only 18% chose silhouettes that were obese, while 76% chose overweight forms. The remainder selected normal shapes to represent their body size. Of the merely overweight women, just under 58% selected an overweight shape, and nearly 43% selected a normal-size silhouette.
"There has been other data of overweight individuals that shows that your perception of body weight is different with individuals who are in a situation where the majority is overweight," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Noting that our society as a whole is hefting more fat, she said living in a culture where obesity is common "is going to affect our perception of ourselves and our children".
Excess weight is a risk factor for health problems including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Widespread misperceptions about body size may represent another challenge in the war against obesity, the study authors say.
The study found that:
- 82% of obese mothers and 43% of overweight mothers underestimated their weight.
- 86% of overweight or obese children underestimated their weight, while only 15% of normal-sized kids did.
- 48% of mothers of obese or overweight children thought their children's weight was normal.
- 13% of normal-weight mothers underestimated their weight.
About 66% of the moms were obese or overweight, which is reflective of the general US population, Dumas said.
But the study children's rate of overweight or obesity, at 39%, was higher than for American children in general, at 33%, she noted.
Schools should teach about healthy weight
The study data show the need for health-care providers to educate patients about the dangers of excess body weight, said Lichtenstein, who also is the director and senior scientist of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.
Schools should teach home economics "with a 21st century approach", she said, so children learn how "to choose and provide foods that are going to result in a healthy body weight".
The Columbia research echoed the findings of a September 2010 Harris Interactive/HealthDay survey that found that 30% of overweight people thought their weight was normal, while 70% of those who were obese thought they were merely overweight. Most thought that lack of exercise, rather than poor eating habits, was the cause, the survey found.
The obesity epidemic isn't confined to the United States. "It's a global issue around the world," said Dr Robert Eckel, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and former American Heart Association president.
Its impact on children is serious, Eckel said.
"An obese child is going to become an obese adult," said Eckel. "Individuals, schools, health-care providers, churches and the government all have a role" to play in addressing this public health issue, he said.
Experts note that information presented at scientific meetings has not been scrutinised as thoroughly as studies published in medical journals.
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