TIME Obesity

Parents Think Their Overweight Kids Are Healthy, Study Finds

New research shows parents often think their overweight kids are a healthy size

Parents are increasingly viewing their overweight kids as “healthy.”

Between 2005 and 2008, parents—mostly mothers—were more likely to say they viewed their overweight child as healthy, compared to parents surveyed between 1988 and 1994, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. The largest increases were seen among low income parents, followed by African Americans. These also happen to be groups at a higher risk for obesity.

What’s troubling is that parents often judge their child’s weight based on how he or she measures up to their peers, suggesting that overweight is increasingly the norm, the researchers say. As Americans get heavier, the new study suggests, perceptions of what’s healthy becomes distorted.

“We rarely compare our weight status against an absolute scale or a number recommended by doctors,” says study author Dr. Jian Zhang of Georgia Southern University. “Instead we compare to what our friends, neighbors, and coworkers look like. If we look like most of others, we of course perceive that we are just fine. As the prevalence of pediatric obesity has tripled within decades, the socially accepted ideal body weight may also be shifting accordingly.”

As more children become overweight, the trend shows that more parents will not think their child is unhealthy, and will be less likely to take action. That could lead to a vicious cycle, the researchers warn. “At a certain point, if no effective strategies are taken now to reverse this trend, all kids are obese, and they continuously carry the extra weight and the risk of various health problems into adulthood,” says Zhang.

The researchers call on pediatricians to talk to their patients—and their patients’ parents—about a healthy weight.

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