Overweight children more likely to underestimate their body size

January 4, 2018 by Steinar Brandslet, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Children clearly enjoy their treats. But it can be tricky to assess their consequences. Credit: Colourbo/Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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.

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 have the opposite problem, in that they tend to underestimate their own size. That can make it difficult to address the issue and to take the necessary steps to attain 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 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology 's (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

Steinsbekk is the first author of a study from NTNU that investigates how children perceive their own . 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 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.

The children were shown seven pictures of girls and boys with known and asked which picture looked the most like them. The researchers then calculated the difference in BMI between the figure identified by the children and the children's own BMI based on measured height and weight.

"That way, we got a measure of how big the difference between actual body size and estimated body size was," says Steinsbekk.

It's important to note that age and gender need to be taken into account when assessing whether children are overweight or obese. For this reason, health authorities have developed different standards for calculating whether a child is overweight or obese.

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 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 , 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."

Explore further: Eating habits most important in weight gain in children

More information: Silje Steinsbekk et al, Body Size Estimation from Early to Middle Childhood: Stability of Underestimation, BMI, and Gender Effects, Frontiers in Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02038

Related Stories

Eating habits most important in weight gain in children

July 16, 2015
Some children gain weight faster than others. Eating habits seem to have far more to say than physical activity, research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology suggests.

Children gain more weight when parents see them as 'overweight'

January 13, 2017
Children whose parents considered them to be 'overweight' tended to gain more weight over the following decade compared with children whose parents thought they were a 'normal' weight, according to analyses of data from two ...

Poor body size judgement can lead to increased tolerance of obesity

September 16, 2014
Size is relative, especially to people who tend to be on the heavy side. Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center in the US found that seven in every ten obese adults underestimate how much someone weighs. People ...

Physically active children are less depressed

January 31, 2017
Previous studies have shown that adults and young people who are physically active have a lower risk of developing depression. But the same effect has not been studied in children - until now.

Parents' use of emotional feeding increases emotional eating in school-age children

April 25, 2017
Emotional eating - eating when you feel sad or upset or in response to another negative mood - is not uncommon in children and adolescents, but why youth eat emotionally has been unclear. Now a new longitudinal study from ...

Recommended for you

Obesity linked to increased risk of early-onset colorectal cancer

October 12, 2018
Women who are overweight or obese have up to twice the risk of developing colorectal cancer before age 50 as women who have what is considered a normal body mass index (BMI), according to new research led by Washington University ...

The metabolome: A way to measure obesity and health beyond BMI

October 11, 2018
The link between obesity and health problems may seem apparent. People who are obese are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, liver disease, cancer, and heart disease. But increasingly, researchers are learning that the connection ...

Being overweight or obese in your 20s will take years off your life, according to a new report

October 10, 2018
Young adults classified as obese in Australia can expect to lose up to 10 years in life expectancy, according to a major new study.New modelling from The George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney also ...

Asthma may contribute to childhood obesity epidemic

October 9, 2018
Toddlers with asthma are more likely to become obese children, according to an international study led by USC scientists.

'Genes are not destiny' when it comes to weight

October 9, 2018
A healthy home environment could help offset children's genetic susceptibilities to obesity, according to new research led by UCL.

What did americans eat today? A third would say fast food

October 3, 2018
(HealthDay)—Americans' love affair with fast food continues, with 1 in every 3 adults chowing down on the fare on any given day.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.