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Parents’ Perceptions of Child Weight May Cause Weight Gain

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It might seem illogical that children would gain more weight if their parents acknowledged them as being overweight. After all, the knowledge could help parents mitigate future weight gain. Not so, according to two new studies. It turns out that children are more likely to gain weight over 10 years if their parents see them as overweight.

Published in Psychological Science (2017; doi: 10.1177/0956797616682027), the first study followed 2,823 Australian families for about 10 years. Researchers measured the children's weight and height during an in-home visit when they were 4 or 5 years old, and again at follow-up, a decade or so later. During the baseline visit, parents were asked to characterize their children as underweight, normal weight, somewhat overweight or very overweight. During a second in-home visit, when the children were 12 or 13, they privately answered a questionnaire on how they perceived their own body shape and weight loss efforts.

Findings showed that children tended to gain more weight if their parents perceived them as overweight, and that children seen this way were more likely to view their bodies negatively and make weight loss attempts by age 12 or 13.

The second study, which included 8,568 families in Ireland, yielded similar results.

"These child-reported outcomes explain part of the counterintuitive association between parents' perceptions of their children as being overweight and subsequent weight gain in those children," the authors observed. "We propose that the stigma attached to being recognized and labeled as overweight may partly explain these findings."

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor, and IDEA's director of event programming.

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