A Government programme to tackle childhood obesity may be at risk of harming the children it aims to help, according to new research from the Queen Mary University in London.

The researchers examined the experiences of parents and their children who were categorised as ‘overweight’ and ‘very overweight’ by England’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), a Government intervention designed to tackle childhood obesity.

Researchers found that weighing children who were classified as overweight or obese causes embarrassment and anxiety and has the potential to cause eating disorders and unhealthy eating patterns.

The study, published in Critical Public Health, is the first to look at the experiences of parents and their children who were categorised as ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’ by the NCMP.

The NCMP records the height and weight of children when they start primary school, age four or five, and again in year six before they move to secondary school, age 11. Their Body Mass Index is calculated in order to understand long-term trends in childhood obesity and used to inform national and local government initiatives. The results are also shared with parents who are advised whether their child has been categorised as ‘underweight’, a ‘healthy weight’, ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’.

The researchers examined the impact of labelling children  ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’ by collating and reviewing published research on the programme.

Parents whose children had been categorised as ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’ had significant concerns about their child’s mental health and the negative impact that the labelling may bring. Parents reported that the programme marked a turning point in their child’s body weight awareness and altered their relationship with food.

Many parents expressed concern that the risk of potential mental health issues was ‘far more dangerous than the weight itself’. The study found that weight-related criticism was associated with poorer self-perceptions, increased dieting and dysfunctional eating behaviours.

As a result of the study, some areas in England have changed the wording they use when talking to parents, avoiding stigmatising terms such as ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’.

Dr Meredith Hawking, the lead author from Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘Many parents have legitimate concerns about the impact the NCMP might have on children’s self-perception and food practices as they grow older. More research is needed to understand whether these concerns are borne out in the long term and to find ways to mitigate them if the programme is to continue.’

This article first appeared on our sister publication Nursing in Practice