Do you see what I see? Weight status misperception and exposure to obesity among children and adolescents

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Abstract

Objective

Obesity prevention in childhood is important. However, changing children's lifestyle behaviors to reduce overweight is a substantial challenge. Accurately perceiving oneself as overweight/obese has been linked to greater motivation to change lifestyle behaviors. Children and adolescents may be less likely to perceive themselves as overweight/obese if they are exposed to overweight/obese people in their immediate environments. This study examined whether youth who are exposed to overweight parents and schoolmates were more likely to misperceive their own weight status.

Design

The Quebec Child and Adolescent Health and Social Survey was a provincially representative, school-based survey of children and adolescents conducted between January and May 1999.

Subjects

3665 children and adolescents (age 9, n = 1267; age 13, n = 1186; age 16, n = 1212) from 178 schools. Mean body mass index (BMI) was 17.5, 20.6 and 22.2 kg/m2, respectively.

Measurements

The misperception score was calculated as the standardized difference between self-perception of weight status (Stunkard Body Rating Scale) and actual BMI (from measured height and weight). Exposure to obesity was based on parent and schoolmate BMI.

Results

Overweight and obese youth were significantly more likely to misperceive their weight compared with non-overweight youth (P<0.001). Multilevel modeling indicated that greater parent and schoolmate BMI were significantly associated with greater misperception (underestimation) of weight status among children and adolescents.

Conclusion

Children and adolescents who live in environments in which people they see on a daily basis, such as parents and schoolmates, are overweight/obese may develop inaccurate perceptions of what constitutes appropriate weight status. Targeting misperception may facilitate the adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors and improve the effectiveness of obesity prevention interventions.

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