A significant number of overweight and obese individuals believe their body weight to be appropriate or normal and are satisfied with their body size. Misperception of overweight status is most common among the poor vs wealthy, African Americans vs white Americans, and men vs women. The unfortunate consequence is that overweight individuals who perceive themselves to be of normal weight are less likely to want to lose weight in contrast to overweight individuals with accurate perceptions. Such individuals are also more likely to smoke, have a poor diet, and be physically inactive.
An interesting hypothesis tested by Burke and colleagues in an Obesity journal article is that misperception of overweight status can actually increase over time in response to the secular increase in the average BMI of the US population. In other words, due to a possible anchoring effect, the more overweight the people around you become, the more one’s sense of “normal” weight is raised upwards, and thus the less likely you are to consider yourself overweight, even though you actually may be. Indeed, given that most individuals you interact with on a regular basis are likely to be overweight or obese, it becomes tough to define what someone with a normal weight looks like.
To answer the question at hand, the authors compared two representative cohorts of the United States population (NHANES) – one surveyed in the early 90’s and the other surveyed in the early 2000’s. Stated simply, they divided each cohort by gender and weight status (BMI) and compared the general perceptions of the individual’s weight.
What did they find?
Just as the researchers predicted, overweight individuals today are less likely to classify themselves as “overweight” in contrast to overweight individuals surveyed over a decade ago. For example, the proportion of overweight women who perceive their weight o be “about right” increased from 14% to 21%, and that among overweight men from 41 to 46%. This latter point also well illustrates the gender bias of weight misclassification.
Interestingly it was among individuals aged 20-25 that the greatest shift towards inaccurate weight classification occurred – overweight individuals in this age group were most likely to see themselves as “normal” weight.
Additionally, independent of the effect of time, this study confirmed a number of factors influencing one’s ability to accurately gauge their own weight status: those who are educated are more likely to self-classify as overweight than those who are not, those with higher incomes are more likely to feel overweight than those with the lowest incomes, married people are more likely to feel overweight than never-married people, and members of minority groups are less likely than whites to consider themselves overweight.
So there you have it – as a population, we are all getting fatter. Making matters worse, the fatter we all get, the less we seem to notice and the less likely we are to do anything about our bulging waistlines.
Burke, Heiland, Nadler. From “overweight” to “about right”: evidence of a generational shift in body weight norms. Obesity. 2010;18(6):1226-34.