A mother’s perception of her overweight child can be tainted by gender according to a recent study in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics. Mothers of heavy-set children are more likely to perceive their daughters as being “overweight” than their sons. This study conducted by the Chronic Disease Nutrition Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia also found that approximately one-third of mothers find no problem with their overweight kids, reporting both boys and girls as being at “about the right weight.”
Researchers analyzed the results of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which included interviews with mothers of 5,500 children aged 2-11 years. They wanted to determine how mothers perceive their child’s weight status. After calculating the child’s body mass index, (BMI or weight in kilograms divided by height in meters, squared) the researchers asked mothers to classify their children as “overweight,” “about the right weight” or “underweight.”
When the mothers of overweight children were polled, 14% of them reported their sons as “overweight,” while 29% classified their daughters as “overweight.” While further research is necessary to uncover the reasons for this significant difference, L. Michele Maynard, PhD, lead researcher and epidemiologist at the CDC, offers some potential explanations: “One possible factor may include a difference in societal standards for acceptable body size for males versus females.” She also explains that because girls often mature earlier than boys, their mothers may view them as heavier.
Much recent attention has been paid to the prevalence of obesity in our society. While this study does not establish direct causality between maternal perception and obesity, it has important implications for young girls at risk of being overweight. The development of eating disorders and poor self-image is caused by a variety of different factors ranging from depression and anxiety to peer pressure and media influences. Several studies have revealed that parents can increase a child’s risk of eating disorders and poor body image with negative reinforcement. According to Dr. Maynard: “Parental concern or dissatisfaction with the weight of their child, often leads to lowered self-concepts of the child and reduced participation in physical activities.” Medical experts are concerned, however, with the rising number of children affected by obesity and the associated health risks.
The number of obese children in the United States continues to rise. According to recent data from the National Center of Health Statistics in Hyattsville, MD, close to 15 percent (roughly 9 million) of children and adolescents ages 6-19 are overweight. This is three times the number of overweight children and teens in 1980. Obese children are at greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, orthopedic ailments and social problems.
Parents should play an active role in preventing obesity in their children. “Parents can help their children by encouraging them to eat lower caloric, nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables rather than foods that have a high caloric content,” states Dr. Maynard. Physical activity is vital in preventing excessive weight gain. “Encouragement for healthy eating and physical activity should be provided carefully in order to protect a child’s self esteem,” according to Maynard.