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updated 3/23/2011 4:18:47 PM ET 2011-03-23T20:18:47

Obese and overweight moms and their similarly overweight children underestimate their size, according to a new study.

Normal weight mothers and children usually accurately gauge their body size, researchers report today (March 23) at the American Heart Association's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism/Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention 2011 Scientific Sessions in Atlanta.

The findings suggest that being overweight and obese is seen as the norm in some families, study author Nicole Dumas, an internal medicine resident at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a statement.

In fact, the delusion may apply to young kids as well. A study published in 2010 in the journal Clinical Pediatrics showed that 71 percent of 150 parents interviewed who had overweight or obese toddlers misperceived their child's weight, identifying it as either a healthy weight or lighter than healthy weight. The misperception may be linked to pediatrician not broaching the subject of fat toddlers with parents. (An estimated 33 percent of preschoolers in the United States are overweight, and 12 to 15 percent are obese, according to the study researcher.)

In the new study, Dumas and her colleagues surveyed New York women and their pre-adolescent children in an urban, predominantly Hispanic area. They asked the women and children about their age, income and heart disease risk factors. They then showed each participant body-shaped silhouettes that corresponded to different heights and weights. Each woman and child picked the silhouette they felt most closely matched their own body type.

In all, the study found, 65.8 percent of the women and 38.9 percent of the children surveyed were overweight or obese according to body mass index, a measure of height and weight that estimates obesity.

When asked to pick a silhouette, 81.9 percent of the obese women underestimated their size, as did 42.5 percent of the overweight women. Only 13.2 percent of the normal weight women made that mistake.

Among the children, 86 percent of obese or overweight kids underestimated their size, compared with 15 percent of normal weight kids.

The researchers also found skewed views when they asked the mothers about the children's weight. Of moms who had overweight or obese children, 47.5 percent thought their kids were normal weight.

"These findings imply that not only is obesity prevalent in urban America, but that those most affected by it are either unaware or underestimate their true weight," Dumas said. "In addition, obesity has become an acceptable norm in some families. Strategies to overcome the obesity epidemic will need to address this barrier to weight loss."

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