Social inequality and age-specific gender differences in overweight and perception of overweight among Swedish children and adolescents: a cross-sectional study

J S van Vliet, P A Gustafsson, K Duchen, N Nelson
BMC Public Health 2015, 15: 628

BACKGROUND: Overweight among children and adolescents related to social inequality, as well as age and gender differences, may contribute to poor self-image, thereby raising important public health concerns. This study explores social inequality in relation to overweight and perception of overweight among 263 boys and girls, age 7 to 17, in Växjö, Sweden.

METHODS: Data were obtained through a questionnaire and from physical measurements of height, weight and waist circumference [WC]. To assess social, age and gender differences in relation to overweight, the independent sample t- and chi-square tests were used, while logistic regression modeling was used to study determinants for perception of overweight.

RESULTS: Social inequality and gender differences as they relate to high ISO-BMI [Body Mass Index for children] and WC were associated with low maternal socioeconomic status [SES] among boys < 13 years [mean age = 10.4; n = 65] and with low paternal education level among boys ≥ 13 years [mean age = 15.0; n = 39] [p < 0.05]. One suggested explanation for this finding is maternal impact on boys during childhood and the influence of the father as a role model for adolescent boys. The only association found among girls was between high ISO-BMI in girls ≥ 13 years [mean age = 15.0; n = 74] and low paternal occupational status. Concerning perception of overweight, age and gender differences were found, but social inequality was not the case. Among boys and girls < 13 years, perception of overweight increased only when overweight was actually present according to BMI or WC [p < 0.01]. Girls ≥ 13 years [mean age = 15.0] were more likely to unrealistically perceive themselves as overweight or "too fat," despite factual measurements to the contrary, than boys [p < 0.05] and girls < 13 years [mean age = 10.4; n = 83] [p < 0.001].

CONCLUSIONS: The association between social inequality and overweight in adolescence in this study is age- and gender-specific. Gender differences, especially in perception of overweight, tend to increase with age, indicating that adolescence is a crucial period. When planning interventions to prevent overweight and obesity among children and adolescents, parental SES as well as age and gender-specific differences in social norms and perception of body weight status should be taken into account.

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