Overweight Children More Likely to Underestimate Their Size

Overweight children are less accurate in estimating their own body size. And the bigger their body is, the more inaccurate their guesses.

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Children clearly enjoy their treats. But it can be tricky to assess their consequences. Photo: Colourbo

Estimating your own body size and weight can be difficult. It turns out that this is true not only for adults, but also for children.

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Fat or fit? It can be difficult to decide. (This is not one of the images used in the survey.) Illustration: Colourbox

Body Mass Index (BMI)

  • BMI, or Body Mass Index, indicates whether a person is overweight, underweight or in the normal part of the scale.
  • BMI is your body weight in kilos divided by height in metres squared (kg/m2). You can find a BMI calculator on this page.
  • Age and gender need to be taken into account when assessing children’s weight. For this reason, health authorities have developed different standards for determining whether a child is overweight or obese.

It is well known that severely underweight individuals – such as those with anorexia – have a tendency to overestimate their own size and think they are fat even if they aren’t.

But we encounter the opposite problem for overweight individuals, who tend to underestimate their own size. That can make it difficult to address the issue and to take the necessary steps to achieve a healthier body.

“To put it simply, first we have to acknowledge that we have a problem before we can do something about it. This also applies to parents: if they don’t recognize that their children have a weight problem, they won’t seek help for it,” says Associate Professor Silje Steinsbekk in NTNU ‘s Department of Psychology.

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Who’s at risk of developing problems? Illustration: Colourbox

Longitudinal study data

Steinsbekk is the first author of a study from NTNU that investigates how children perceive their own body size. The results have now been published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study is based on data from the Norwegian research project Tidlig Trygg i Trondheim, a longitudinal population-based study that looks at the risk and protective factors contributing to children’s psychological and social health. The project has followed up with nearly a thousand children and their parents every other year since the children were four years old.

Researchers are also studying what factors promote good health habits and what contributes to the development of obesity, inactivity and poor eating habits.

“We investigated how the children estimated their own body size and compared this to how their estimates changed from age 6 to 8 and age 8 to 10. We also looked at what could explain the developments,” says Steinsbekk.

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We face lots of temptations. Adults need to help the children make the right choices. Photo: Colourbox

Biggest children underestimated the most often

Generally, the researchers found that children more often underestimated than overestimated the size of their body, although the majority made accurate estimates. Boys were more likely to underestimate their own body size than girls.

“We also found that the higher the children’s BMI, the more they underestimated their size over time,” Steinsbekk says.

The largest children thus underestimated their body size the most and showed an increased degree of underestimation over time (that is, from 6 to 8 and from 8 to 10 years old).

However, this can have some advantages.

“It’s reasonable to imagine that underestimating protects you from acknowledging that your body is bigger than you want, and that can be quite practical,” says Steinsbekk.

For example, we know that overweight and obese youth who have a correct perception of their body size are more likely to be depressed. Individuals who are big and know it report more psychological problems.

“Denial may be a favourable defence mechanism, but it can also be an obstacle to making necessary changes,” says Steinsbekk. “For children, the parents’ acknowledgment of the problem is what’s most important. Parents are the ones who need to make the necessary adjustments to promote good health.”

Source : Gemini research news