Parents, take note! Telling your children that they are 'overweight' may make them gain weight as they grow up, new research has warned.
The findings indicate that children whose parents identified them as being overweight perceived their own body size more negatively and were more likely to attempt to lose weight, factors that partly accounted for their weight gain.
"Although parents' perception that their children are overweight has been presumed to be important to management of childhood obesity, recent studies have suggested the opposite; when a parent identifies a child as being overweight, that child is at increased risk of future weight gain," said Eric Robinson from University of Liverpool in the UK.
"We argue that the stigma attached to being an overweight child may explain why children whose parents view them as being overweight tend to have elevated weight gain during development," he said.
Drawing from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, Robinson and and Angelina Sutin, from Florida State University College of Medicine in the US, examined data for 2,823 Australian families.
They measured the children's height and weight when they began the study as 4- or 5-year-olds.
At that time, the children's parents reported whether they thought the children were best described as underweight, normal weight, overweight, or very overweight.
Later, when they were 12 or 13, the children used a series of images depicting bodies that increased in size to indicate which image most resembled their own body size.
Children also reported whether they had engaged in any behaviours in an attempt to lose weight in the previous 12 months.
Researchers took height and weight measurements again when the children were 14 or 15 years old.
The results indicated that parents' perceptions were associated with children's weight gain 10 years later: Children whose parents considered them to be overweight at age 4 or 5 tended to gain more weight by age 14 or 15.
This association could be accounted for, at least in part, by the children's beliefs and behaviours.
Children whose parents thought they were overweight perceived their own body size more negatively and were more likely to report attempts to lose weight.
The results were the same for boys and girls, and they could not be explained by other possible factors, such as household income, presence of a medical condition and parents' weight.
The link between parents' perceptions and children's later weight gain did not depend on how much the child actually weighed when they began the study.
When researchers examined data from 5,886 Irish families participating in the Growing Up in Ireland study, they saw the same pattern of results.
The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.
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