More than 300 million adults worldwide are overweight, and they’re increasingly failing to recognize the problem, a recent survey has found.
The data comes from 853 men and 944 women living in Great Britain in 1999, and 847 men and 989 women in 2007. In 2007, of those who are overweight only 75 percent realized they fall into this category, compared with 88 percent in 1999.
Professor Jane Wardle and colleagues from University College, London, set out to look at the changes in public perceptions of overweight over an eight-year period. Participants reported their weight and height, and classified their body size on a scale from very underweight to obese. The proportion who were objectively clinically obese nearly doubled from 11 to 19 per cent.
But “the weight at which people perceived themselves to be overweight also rose significantly,” the researchers said in an article on the British Medical Journal website. This “demonstrates a decrease in sensitivity in the self-diagnosis of overweight. Despite media and health campaigns aiming to raise awareness of healthy weight, increasing numbers of overweight people fail to recognize that their weight is a cause for concern. This makes it less likely that they will see calls for weight control as personally relevant.”
In an editorial, Professor Sara Bleich of John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in an editorial that “the mismatch between self-perceived and self-reported weight has been documented for decades; women typically view themselves as heavier than they really are, whereas men often underestimate their weight.”
The fact that this mismatch is widening may be due to the greater stigma of being overweight, Bleich said, which may discourage people from identifying themselves as overweight or obese. But it could also be caused by changing societal norms, which may have increased the threshold at which people think of themselves as overweight.
She points out that the UK study also found an improved match between self-reported and self-perceived weight among normal and underweight individuals. “This finding suggests that fewer people of healthy weight now have negative body images,” she said. “Data on temporal trends in public perception of weight are important, given the positive association between self-perceived weight status and behaviors to control weight.”
Bleich said that overweight people who underestimate their body weight may be ignoring important messages about modifying their lifestyles. Educating the entire population on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, rather than focusing on overweight individuals, is the key to correcting misconceptions about weight and may also reduce weight-related stigma, she said.
“A better understanding of changing perceptions of weight and its determinants is key, particularly in those subpopulations where the prevalence of obesity is highest,” Bleich said. However, solutions at an individual level have mostly been unsuccessful at reducing the obesity rates because “they ignore the nested relationship between the individual, the family, and the broader environment.”
Our decisions, actions, and health outcomes depend not only on our personality but also on the social forces that shape the way we live. “Obesity – and its unequal distribution – is the consequence of a complex system that is shaped by how society organizes its affairs,” she said. Bleich advocates for public health programs, working with the media to diminish negative stereotypes of the obese, and partnerships with the food and beverage industries to help promote healthy lifestyles.
Johnson, F. et al. Changing perceptions of weight in Great Britain: comparison of two population surveys. The British Medical Journal, published online July 10, 2008.
Bleich, S. N. Public perception of overweight. The British Medical Journal, published online July 10, 2008.