The research led by University of California, San Diego School of Medicine also suggests that parents do not recognise the importance of daily physical activity in helping their child reach a healthy weight.
"Parents have a hard time changing their child's dietary and physical activity behaviours," said lead author Kyung Rhee, an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Pediatrics.
The study is based on a survey of 202 parents whose children were enrolled in an obesity clinic at the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island in 2008 and 2009.
The survey probed parents' readiness to take actionable steps to improve their child's eating habits and physical activity levels.
The children ranged in age from 5 to 20 years old, with an average age of 13.8 years. More than two-thirds were female, and almost all (94 per cent) were clinically classified as obese.
Although most of the children had been referred to the obesity clinic by a primary care provider and had metabolic markers of obesity, 31.4 per cent of parents perceived their child's health as excellent or very good and 28 per cent did not perceive their child's weight as a health concern.
Parents indicated a greater interest in helping their child eat a healthy diet than encouraging the pediatrician-recommended hour of daily physical activity.
Specifically, 61.4 per cent of parents reported that they were improving their child's eating habits (less junk food, more fruits and vegetables) while only 41.1 per cent said they were increasing their child's involvement in active play, sports, dancing or even walking.
Both diet and exercise are considered keys to good health, and a growing body of evidence suggests that these health habits are formed early in life.
Parents who had talked with their primary care physician about healthy eating strategies were more likely to be in the "action stage of change" with their child's diet.
By contrast, parents who viewed their own battle with weight as a health concern were less likely to be addressing their child's eating habits.
The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.