Most Americans Are Overweight But Don't Know It

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Despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, according to a new Gallup poll the majority say that they’re not trying to lose weight — for the simple reason that they don’t think they’re overweight.

For a country that is supposedly obsessed with dieting, weight loss and thinness, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women surveyed report that they are neither overweight nor trying to lose weight. Among those who acknowledge being overweight, “equal percentages say they are overweight and trying to lose weight (18 percent) or are overweight and not trying to lose weight (18 percent)” according to the report.

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In other words, only half of those who report carrying extra pounds are trying to shed them. Overall fewer than 1 in 5 people acknowledge being overweight and actively trying to lose that weight.

The poll results are even more surprising when examining younger Americans, those who are most exposed to the thin, ideal image presented in popular media such as magazines and television shows.

Contrary to the common stereotype of diet-obsessed teens and young adults, only 1 in 5 people age 18 to 34 are trying to lose weight — 80 percent are not. Fewer than 1 in 4 young adults report being overweight, and of those only half are trying to lose that extra weight. Among girls and women, fewer than 1 in 3 (31 percent) are trying to lose weight, and only 1 in 5 report being overweight and trying to lose.

Weight Blindness

About 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, yet only 36 percent of them report being overweight. That means that about a third of us are overweight and don’t know it.

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For many people this finding is counter-intuitive: They assume that obesity is — often painfully — obvious to everyone and especially the overweight person himself or herself. The idea that a person could be overweight or obese and not know it seems about as absurd as a person growing a second head and not noticing. However this phenomenon is not news to health professionals, who routinely treat patients who don’t recognize how overweight they are or who minimize their extra weight as just “a few extra pounds.”

A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that nearly 40 percent of overweight women and 10.5 percent of obese women believed themselves to be underweight or of normal weight.

Though it’s often claimed that most women think they are too fat, only 16 percent of normal-weight women in the study perceived themselves as overweight. And it’s not just the fat on their own bodies that most people are oblivious to: Nearly 2/3 of parents underestimate their children’s weight, and half of parents do not recognize that their children are overweight or obese, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics.

The Gallup survey concludes:

“These data highlight the importance of perception in the battle to fight obesity in the U.S. Though several recent studies … have documented that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, less than 40% of American adults characterize themselves as either very or somewhat overweight. This discrepancy may suggest that addressing the obesity crisis in America must first start by convincing overweight Americans that they are indeed overweight.”

The reluctance for Americans to acknowledge their weight problems may come at a high cost to their health. For example, breast cancer is the most common form among women, and obese women are up to 60 percent more likely to develop cancer as compared to healthy-weight women.

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However as the AP’s Maria Cheng noted, many doctors are hesitant to raise the issue with their at-risk patients: “Any discussion of weight and breast cancer is considered sensitive because some may misconstrue that as the medical establishment blaming women for their disease.”

The idea that America is a nation of people constantly striving to be thinner and healthier is a myth. Most people don’t eat healthy diets, don’t get enough exercise and think they are fine just the way they are.

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