Rose-coloured glasses: parental perception of children’s eating habits

Parents believe children eat healthy

Overall, parents surveyed believe that their children are of normal weight, physically active and eat healthily. Following the application of a path analysis, we are able to demonstrate that parents do not necessarily apply the same criteria that health professionals or child health advocates do when assessing the health behaviours of their children.

Parents underestimate children’s weight

Data showed that of the 1,940 randomly selected parents and caregivers surveyed, only 8.6% categorized their child as overweight and less than 1.0% identified their child as obese. This is in stark contrast to the 26% of children in the Champlain region who are estimated to be overweight or obese. This finding is consistent with previous research which shows most parents underestimate their child’s weight or do not perceive them as overweight or obese. Two previous surveys, by the Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Medical Association, evaluated parental perceptions of body weight in 6-12 year-old children. These investigations identified the same discrepancy between population levels of childhood overweight and obesity, and parental perceptions of their own children’s related health measures.

Children not meeting guidelines

Our data are consistent with the earlier survey indicating that parents view their children as active. As a matter of fact, 90% of the respondents of this Champlain region parental survey reported their child to be ‘active’ or ‘very active’. Despite these perceptions, it is known that over 50% of Canadian children are not active enough for optimal growth and 90% of Canadian children and youth are not meeting the guidelines set forth in Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Children and Youth. In Canada, a child is deemed sufficiently active if they adhere to the new Canadian Physical Activity Guide for Children recommendation of 60 or more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Although, only 70% of our surveyed population indicated that their child participated in 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, 90% view their child as active.

Children not meeting fruit and vegetable intake

While over 80% of parents polled in our survey believe their child has ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’ eating habits and report healthy eating practices, this perception does not correspond to National level population data from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). This data identified that 23% of children’s caloric intake is from ‘other food’ not falling into one of the four food groups and that approximately 70% of children are not meeting the recommended fruit and vegetable intake. Upon closer examination of the responses, 25% reported their child eats less than three servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Although 46% of the parents surveyed had children over nine years of age, only 16% reported a fruit and vegetable consumption that would meet ‘Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide’ recommendations of six or more fruits or vegetables each day.

Knowledge gap

The findings of this study indicate that parents surveyed do not appear to understand current recommendations for physical activity and healthy eating behaviours in children. Parents appear to base their judgment of what constitutes a healthy amount of physical activity or appropriate eating behaviours on minimal information that is not consistent with the knowledge applied by health professionals and public health authorities. This study highlights an important knowledge gap between parents and the Professional community on issues fundamental to the physical activity, eating behaviours and, ultimately, the health of their children.

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