Health beat: A weighty problem parents can't see

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • February 16, 2012 - 4:57 PM

It may seem hard to believe, but parents may not realize their kids are overweight, even if it's obvious to everyone else.

That's one of the findings of a new University of Minnesota study, which looked at childhood obesity on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota.

The researchers found that nearly 30 percent of kindergartners on the reservation were overweight -- some extremely so -- as measured by their body-mass index (BMI).

But only 10 percent of the parents thought their children were "slightly or very" overweight. Not coincidentally, 86 percent of the parents were overweight themselves.

"This is not unique to Native American populations," said Chrisa Arcan, a public health researcher who led the study. Other studies have shown a similar tendency among parents to underestimate their children's weight problems, especially among minority groups.

"We're trying to understand why perception is different from reality," Arcan said.

Arcan said she decided to study kids on the reservation because American Indians have among the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity, as well as Type II diabetes. And studies have shown that overweight children tend to grow into overweight adults.

Arcan got permission to weigh and measure more than 400 children, and then surveyed their parents. Nine out of ten thought their kids were just the right weight, if not a little underweight. "Only 6.3 percent correctly identified their child as obese," Arcan said.

The heavier the parents, the more likely they were to misjudge their children as normal weight. Part of it may be environmental or cultural; a sense that extra pounds are the norm, Arcan said. But that can undermine anti-obesity efforts. If parents don't see the problem, she said, they can't "effectively help their children."

The study was published Thursday in the CDC's Preventing Chronic Disease (

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