Parents often underestimate how fat their children are – but so do their offspring and family doctors, research suggests.
Mothers and fathers also prefer to use terms such as “big boned”, “thick” or “solid” rather than describing their child as obese or overweight.
The new study found that more than half of parents (54%) underestimated whether their child was overweight or obese.
Meanwhile, 34% of children and adolescents also underestimated whether they were fat, while doctors also tend to think children are lighter than they were.
According to the study, parents of younger children were less likely to think their child was overweight, and were less accurate at judging the weight of boys than girls.
Researchers also found that less educated parents, and those who were overweight themselves, tended to not regard their child as overweight.
The experts, presenting their findings at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Glasgow, examined existing data from 87 worldwide studies carried out between 2000 and 2018.
These included 24,774 children aged 19 and under, and their parents.
Abrar Alshahrani, from the University of Nottingham, who led the study, said: “Despite attempts to raise public awareness of the obesity problem, our findings indicate that underestimation of child higher weight status is very common.
“This misperception is important because the first step for a health professional in supporting families is a mutual recognition of higher weight status.
“This is particularly important for the child themselves, the parents, and the health professionals who look after them.
“Our study also found a tendency for health professionals to underestimate weight, which suggests that overweight children may not be offered the support they need to ensure good health.”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Nobody wants to think of themselves or their child as overweight or unhealthy, but the stark truth is that overweight and obese children face numerous, serious health-related problems – both physical and mental – in the years ahead, if their weight is not addressed.
“This study shows how underestimation is prevalent across the board – including amongst healthcare professionals – and highlights the importance of taking accurate measurements, so that appropriate and consistent interventions can be implemented to support a child to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle.
“It also emphasises how vital it is to be frank about weight from an early age as forging healthy behaviours in early life will have a very real impact on a patient’s long-term health and wellbeing into adulthood.
“Childhood obesity is one of the most serious health challenges of our time and one that mustn’t be swept under the carpet.”
She said GPs routinely talk to parents about simple lifestyle changes that can have a positive impact on their children’s health.
But she said there was a “society-wide responsibility”, adding: “We need to work with parents, healthcare professionals, teachers, advertisers, food manufacturers, retailers, public health officials and others, in order to evoke genuine change.
“Now that this finding has been observed, it would be useful to see some research into the reasons why people are more likely to underestimate children’s weight, so that we can start properly and effectively addressing the problem.
“Physical activity and lifestyle is a clinical priority for the College and we have developed resources to support GPs and healthcare professionals to have what can often be difficult conversations with patients about their weight, and the weight of their children.
“We have also embarked on a partnership with parkrun UK, which has already seen thousands of patients – including children – take part in local running events in their communities, and we will soon be launching another scheme to support GP practices in encouraging patients to get more active.”
Data for 2017/18 in England shows that 12.8% of children in Reception year (ages four to five) are overweight, with a further 9.5% being obese.
In year 6 (ages 10 to 11), 14.2% are overweight, with a further 20.1% being obese.
Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Millions of parents are in denial about their own and their children’s weight and they are doing their kids no favours at all since, as the researchers point out, they are denied the help to prevent them spiralling into becoming seriously overweight or obese.
“The greater tragedy is that the health profession has for years colluded with this medical error by not requiring its staff to assess children’s weight routinely, by not telling the parents the true figures and by not intervening to correct excess weight gain until it’s too late.”