FRIDAY, June 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Many parents tend to see their overweight or obese children as normal, and the kids themselves tend to underestimate their own weight, new research out of Britain reveals.
Such perceptions could lead to significant health problems -- such as diabetes -- for those kids, the researchers say.
"I asked children and parents whether they recognized when they were overweight," said lead author Alison N. Jeffery, a senior research nurse from the Early Bird Survey at Derriford Hospital in England.
Among the 300 children in the Early Bird Survey, 62 percent of those who were overweight underestimated their own weight, Jeffery said. And among the parents, "up to three-quarters didn't realize when their overweight child was overweight," she added.
Parental views of a child's obesity, she added, were just as striking.
"Sixty-seven percent of the mothers and 47 percent of the fathers didn't realize that their child had a weight problem and saw their child as normal," she said.
The study was presented June 4 at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.
Obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes and other health problems, Jeffery said. "But if parents aren't even seeing it in their children, they are unlikely to do anything about it."
The reason for this finding, Jeffery added, is that, as whole populations have gotten heavier, "we are now seeing people who are overweight as normal."
Jeffery's team also found that some parents of normal-weight children think their kids are underweight. "They've been asking us, 'Should we feed them more,' " she said.
Jeffrey believes the findings can be extended to other countries, such as the United States. "We need to increase weight awareness in parents of their children," she said.
Another presentation at the same meeting found that many school children are overweight or obese and are at risk for type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
In the study, the Los Angeles researchers collected data on 1,700 eighth-grade children. They looked at their weight, glucose levels, insulin and cholesterol levels.
"We found that almost 50 percent of the children are overweight or obese," said Dr. Francine Kaufman, head of the Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
Fifteen percent of the children had elevated blood sugar and elevated insulin levels, "putting them at high risk for type 2 diabetes," she added.
Kaufman noted that the children in the study came from mostly poor socioeconomic backgrounds and were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch programs. "We were targeting the at-risk population," she said.
"There are enough children out there with risk factors that we should consider population-based strategies in the schools," Kaufman said.
Schools need to offer more healthful food choices and a renewed emphasis on physical education, she said.
Based on her findings, Kaufman plans a long-term study to see if changes in food and exercise as well as health education can change this troubling trend.
Dr. David L. Katz, of the Yale University School of Medicine, said, "Just two decades ago, we spoke of the two kinds of diabetes as 'juvenile onset' and 'adult onset.' In that short span, adult onset -- now type 2 --diabetes has become epidemic in children as young as 6."
Given the strong ties between diabetes and heart disease, this trend suggests that cardiovascular disease could become common in teens within a decade, he noted.
"We cannot afford to make light of obesity -- the primary cause of epidemic diabetes," Katz said. "Obesity is not a cosmetic issue, it is a highly significant health issue. Because of our societal views, including widespread bias against obesity, there is considerable pressure for parents and children to deny even when they see it.
He added, "We must de-stigmatize obesity so that we can acknowledge it when it's there. Then we must both acknowledge it, and work to control it, because the future health of our children is very clearly at stake."
The American Diabetes Association has more about obesity and diabetes.