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UH professor’s research reveals realities of childhood obesity


Health and human performance assistant professor Daphne Hernandez’s research investigates childhood obesity and why some mothers don’t see their children as overweight. | Courtesy of Daphne Hernandez.

A study from the Department of Health and Human Performance found a link between childhood obesity and a mother’s perception of her child’s weight.

Over the course of approximately six months, assistant health and human performance professor Daphne Hernandez and 15 students collaborated with community centers in the east end of Houston. They recruited 70 Hispanic mothers to evaluate for the study.

Hernandez said that while they are pleased to have reported most parents could accurately perceive their child’s weight, 54 percent of mothers of obese children misperceived their child’s weight.

This finding explains a factor behind why overweight children may remain overweight until adulthood.

“Logically, it makes sense that parents who think their child is (at a) normal weight when the child is overweight and obese are less likely to make behavioral changes than parents that are able to look at their child and say, ‘I know my child is overweight’,” Layne Reesor, a doctoral candidate who helped conduct the study, said. “Those parents are going to be willing to make changes.”

Hernandez said that a mother’s misperception of her child’s health could most likely stem from the social environment.

“Unfortunately, the overweight status has become the norm,” Hernandez said. “So they look at their child and they look at their friends, and they look exactly the same. They have a tendency to think they’re at an OK weight, but the reality is that their child and friend are overweight.”

She added that a mother’s inability to recognize her child being overweight could affect the success of childhood obesity programs.

“The concern is that we have a number of childhood obesity programs that are being developed and that are currently in place, and all that is good,” Hernandez said. “But if mothers don’t perceive (that) their child is overweight or obese, they’re less likely to put them in the programs, and then these programs are less likely to be effective because the children that need to be in them are not.”

Parents are urged to consistently take their children to well-child visits, but a large part of childhood obesity prevention is health practitioners taking the time to explain what a healthy body mass index is and why it is important.

“Having healthcare providers take the time to have a discussion about the child’s weight status before immediately providing information about behavior changes is what’s going to be helpful,” Reesor said. “A lot of the time, in health care settings, doctors and practitioners are quick to problem-solve and provide information. Doctors go straight into ‘This is what we need to do’ instead of addressing the misperception first.”

Though a majority of UH students are childless, this study’s findings relate to them both academically and as future parents.

“UH is a Hispanic-serving institution, so there’s a lot of Hispanics that attend, so in the long run this could be their child,” Hernandez said. “But it’s important to the UH community because this is research that is coming out of the University, and I’m always looking for students willing to participate in research. It’s opportunity for students to get engaged in research, and research means publicity, so it’s a good opportunity for them.”

Recently named Chair of Department of Health and Human Performance, Daniel O’Connor agreed that Hernandez and her students’ findings will have an impact on the health of the Hispanic community.

“I am proud that Dr. Hernandez and other faculty in our department are contributing to the science of health for communities that are in great need of such work,” O’Connor said. “Dr. Hernandez and her students have provided information that may be used to improve screening and counseling of immigrant Hispanic mothers and their children.”

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