It is very impressive that one in three mothers who think they can guess their child’s weight, normally fail to guess correctly since they think that it is lower than the figure actually shown on the scale. This phenomenon is more common in mothers of overweight or obese preschoolers. More specifically, studies carried out in Greece have shown that mothers (at an almost 60% percentage) of overweight children between the ages of 1 and 5 believe that their children have a normal weight. The ability of parents to estimate their children’s weight correctly improves as children grow up, up to the last grades of primary school and the first grades of high school, when children are starting to become aware of the problem too. On the contrary, mothers of children who exercise regularly seem to be able to estimate their children’s weight more accurately. Also, the same studies have revealed that more than 50% of children at the sixth grade of primary school follow some type of diet in order to loose weight, with the majority of these children being girls. It is therefore important to raise awareness among parents so that they take action, already when their children are at preschool age, in order to prevent obesity problems, even early menarche in girls.
Why is this happening?
This inaccurate perception is founded on common beliefs that have been established throughout the centuries and associate extra weight with extra strength, prestige, financial status, success and tolerance to diseases. It is not coincidental that historically, great and influential people are depicted in paintings or photographs as rather portly figures. On the other hand, sickly bodies represent weakness and failure to cover dietary needs and intolerance to disease, which is of course not desirable, particularly for children who are still growing. By carrying over this old-generation remnant into today’s reality where food is available in large quantities and at low cost, children start putting on weight without their parents actually acknowledging a problem. Besides, historical events like the Axis occupation of Greece (a particularly difficult period for the country which is not that far away since some of the old people today are likely to have experienced it) normally hold a large share in these perceptions that affect how children are raised. Finally, records show that slim bodies as well as picky eating (nagging), although a normal behavior, are major sources of concern for the parents.
At the same time, there are traditions and cultural customs that explain why we can’t “see” the problem of child obesity – such as extremely large servings and multiple dishes in festive occasions. Similarly, each one of us carries over to their children some deeply rooted stereotypes on food and weight due to own experiences. These are expressed with phrases such as “the last bite is your strength”, “children in Africa are starving and you are throwing away your food”, “it’s impolite to say no to treats”, “it’s fine if it’s fat, it will turn into height”. Studies, however, show that obese children are more likely to turn into obese adults.
Let us finally not forget that childhood obesity is now so common that it’s the norm. This means that overweight children are no longer out of place among their classmates and at the same time, with the media and the social media highlighting only extreme overweight cases, it is only normal that parents fail to recognize extra weight on their children.
“Some extra weight doesn’t hurt…”
It is very likely that this “some extra weight” will be carried over to their adult life, and it is known that increased fat accumulation in the body or the belly, depending on how serious the problem is, is associated with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome and hypertension, amongst others. It is indeed very sad the fact that we are now observing the appearance of such diseases in younger age groups, with clinical risk factors (high blood pressure, high levels of glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides etc.) for these diseases showing up in childhood-adolescence and the major factor being the increased weight. The best you can do is seek advice from an expert who will be based on objective measurements to identify, if any, problems and their extent and then guide you through solutions. In this case, do not forget that the whole family has a role to play in dietary habits and weight control.
The good news
Since we are living in an information age where internet and social media play a huge role, several studies in Europe point towards the fact that parents have concerns and tend to discuss about and seek instructions on their children’s diet and weight. Access to information is the first step. But the second important step is parents themselves adopting balanced dietary habits since they set an example for their children and can therefore help them in copying them. Moreover, parents must take action immediately, from the child’s very early stages of life, since prevention is always better than cure – before the problem of obesity becomes difficult to manage.
Ms Christina-Polina Lambrinou