By Michelle Healy
Nearly one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are obese or overweight, but many don't realize that they fall into that category.
According to new government statistics, approximately 30% of children and adolescents ages 8-15 years (32% of boys and 28% of girls) — an estimated 9.1 million young people — don't have an accurate read on their own weight.
About 33% of kids (ages 8–11) and 27% of teens (ages 12–15) misperceive their weight status, says the report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Based on data collected between 2005 and 2012 from more than 6,100 kids and teens for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the report also finds:
• 42% of those classified as obese (48% of boys; 36% of girls) considered themselves to be about the right weight.
• 76% of those classified as overweight (81% of boys; 71% of girls) believed they were about the right weight.
• 13% of those classified as being at a healthy weight considered themselves too thin (9%) or too fat (4%).
Studies have shown that recognizing obesity can be an important step in reversing what is a major health problem for U.S. children and adolescents, and it can be an important predictor of later weight-control behaviors, says Neda Sarafrazi, a nutritional epidemiologist at NCHS and lead author of the report.
"When overweight kids underestimate their weight, they are less likely to take steps to reduce their weight or do additional things to control their weight, like adopt healthier eating habits or exercise regularly," Sarafrazi says.
"On the other hand, when normal weight or underweight kids overestimate their weight, they might have unhealthy weight-control behaviors," she says.
Weight misperception varied by race and Hispanic origin, according to the report. Black and Mexican-American youths were more likely to misperceive their weight than white children. It also varied by income level and was significantly less common among higher-income families compared with lower-income families.
The report's findings are not a surprise, says Timothy Nelson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was not involved in the study.
"In general, children and adolescents have a tendency to underestimate their health risks, and this certainly appears to be the case with obesity," says Nelson, who studies pediatric health behaviors. "We see a similar pattern of misperception when parents are asked about their children's weight. Parents are often unaware of the problem."
With obesity so prevalent today, it's understandable that many kids might have a skewed take on their weight, he says. "If they are surrounded by people who are overweight, they may be less likely to label their own weight as a problem."
The findings highlight the need for health professionals "to communicate with families about the child's weight," Nelson says. "This can be a tough conversation when the child is overweight, but it is critical that pediatricians help parents understand where their child stands and what steps need to be taken to get the child on a healthier track."