The annual report of the Health Survey for England (HSE) NHS Digital was published last week. One of the key trends that HSE tracks over the years is overweight and obesity among adults and children. This year my colleagues Anne Conolly and Byron Davies have looked at how the weight of children is related to the weight of their parents and how parents perceive the weight of their children.
Obesity is a major public health problem. Obese adults have an increased risk of several different health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. In children, obesity is linked to conditions such as asthma and early onset type-2 diabetes, as well as mental health and behavioural problems. Children who are obese are also likely to become obese adults.
So how many children are overweight or obese? The HSE shows that nearly one in three (29%) of children aged between 2 and 15 were either overweight or obese in 2016-17, including one in six children who were obese (16%). As children got older they were more likely to be obese: around one in ten of boys and girls aged 2 to 4 were obese, compared with a quarter by the time children were in their early teens (13 to 15 years old).
Whether children were overweight or obese was clearly linked to that of their parents. HSE findings show that obesity was most common in children with obese mothers (28%) and least common in children whose mothers who were neither overweight nor obese (8% of these children were obese). The pattern was similar for fathers and their children. There was a stronger link between the weight of mothers and daughters than between the weight of mothers and sons. This is not altogether surprising, as parents and children are likely to be similar in what they eat and how physically active they are.
Do parents realise when their children are overweight or obese? In 2015 and 2016, we asked parents what they thought of their child’s weight. Most children were seen by their parents as being about the right weight. The mothers of 84% of children saw their child as about the right weight. 9% of children were seen as too heavy and 8% were seen as too light. The results for fathers’ views of their children’s weight were similar.
The chart below shows how this varied by the child’s weight. Nine in ten children who were neither overweight nor obese were considered to be the right weight by both their mothers and fathers. The proportion was the same for children who were overweight – around nine in ten of their parents thought they were about the right weight, although one in ten thought their child was too heavy. Parents of obese children were evenly split – although half said their child was too heavy, half thought their child was about the right weight. In other words, these findings suggest that parents may not be very good judges of their children’s weight, and may not always be able to spot that there is a potential problem.