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Parents accurately perceive problematic eating behaviors but overestimate physical activity levels in preschool children

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Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity Aims and scope Submit manuscript



The aim of this study is to examine the associations between parents’ perceptions of their child’s physical activity and eating behaviors to actual physical activity, body mass index percentage (BMI%), and body fat percentage (BF%). A secondary aim is to examine additional parental determinants to child’s physical activity.


Participants were preschool children (N = 114, 59 females, Mage= 4.06) from three University-sponsored centers and parents (N = 114, 107 mothers). Parents self-reported physical activity, perceptions of child’s physical activity, and completed “The Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire”. Children physical activity was collected with accelerometers.


Whereas 97% of the 68 parents with children meeting physical activity guidelines accurately identified their child as active, 93% of the 14 parents with children not meeting physical activity guidelines inaccurately identified their child as active (X2(1, N = 82) = 0.58, p = 0.446)). Regarding eating behaviors, child BMI% was moderately correlated with parent’s perceptions of their child’s Emotional Overeating (r(74) = 0.416, p < 0.001) and Food Responsiveness (r(74) = 0.543, p < 0.001). Parent’s engagement in vigorous physical activity demonstrated a positive relationship to child’s physical activity (r(78) = 0.297, p = 0.008).


Parents of inactive children have inaccurate perceptions of their child’s physical activity. The association between children’s BMI% and eating behaviors indicates parents can accurately perceive problematic eating behaviors. Parents, who accurately perceive their child’s behaviors, may be in a better position to identify deficiency and seek early intervention. Additionally, parent’s physical activity may have implications to children’s physical activity.

Level of evidence

Level V: Descriptive cross-sectional study.

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Data availability

Additional research analyses and questions are still underway and data sharing or data repository approval is not approved. Researchers are free to contact the Child, Movement, Activity, and Developmental Health Laboratory for additional questions or inquiries.


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We would like to acknowledge the support of the Child Movement, Activity, and Developmental Health Lab and the multiple members of the research team that helped in data collection and analysis. Specifically, we would like to acknowledge Kara K. Palmer, PhD and Katherine Chinn.


This paper is funded by the University of Michigan Momentum Center for Childhood Obesity.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Conceptualization and formal analysis were performed by KQS-A, CW, and LER. The first draft of the manuscript was written by KQS-A and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Leah E. Robinson.

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The authors have no known conflicts of interest.

Ethics approval

The International Review Board (IRB) at the University of Michigan approved this study (HUM00108917), Momentum Center Grant Principal Investigator Leah E. Robinson.

Informed consent

All parents in this study read and signed an informed consent to participate in this study. All children provided verbal assent.

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The article is part of the Topical Collection on Exercise and Eating and Weight Disorders.

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Scott-Andrews, K.Q., Wengrovius, C. & Robinson, L.E. Parents accurately perceive problematic eating behaviors but overestimate physical activity levels in preschool children. Eat Weight Disord 26, 931–939 (2021).

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