The Grapevine

Weight Misperception Causing People To Underestimate Their Own Size, Study Says

According to a new British study, the normalization of plus-size bodies may have caused people to misperceive their own weight. The findings revealed a significant rise in weight misperception over the past two decades.

Those who underestimated their weight were also 85 percent less likely to try losing weight compared to those who accurately estimated their weight.

The study titled "Normalization of Plus Size and the Danger of Unseen Overweight and Obesity in England" was published in the journal Obesity on June 22.

"Seeing the huge potential of the fuller-sized fashion market, retailers may have contributed to the normalization of being overweight and obese," said lead author Dr. Raya Muttarak from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England. "While this type of body positive movement helps reduce stigmatization of larger-sized bodies, it can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences. The increase in weight misperception in England is alarming and possibly a result of this normalization."

The researchers examined data on 23,460 overweight or obese people from 1997 to 2015. Over the period, they found the number of overweight people underestimating their weight had increased from 48.4 percent to 57.9 percent among men and from 24.5 percent to 30.6 percent in women.

Among obese people, the number of males underestimating their weight almost doubled from 6.6 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 2015. Ethnic minorities were also more likely to underestimate their weight compared to the white population but were also more likely to try to lose weight.

Those with lower levels of education and income were more likely to misperceive their weight status and less likely to try to lose weight. Many factors can play a role in this such as access to health care services, working conditions, impact of stress, affordability of food, etc.

Muttarak added that the higher prevalence of overweight and obese individuals in such groups may contribute to "visual normalization," which she described as "more regular visual exposure to people with excess weight than their counterparts with higher socioeconomic status have."

In the United States, the prevalence of obesity in the population was 39.8 percent, affecting nearly 93.3 million American adults in 2015-2016. While the new study looked at the British population, the findings were similar to the existing U.S. data on the prevalence of obesity broken down by socioeconomic status and ethnicity. 

For public health interventions, the authors encouraged prioritizing the risk factors highlighted in the findings. "Given the price of healthier foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables are higher than processed and energy-dense foods in this country, as a sociologist, I feel these inequalities should be addressed," Muttarak said. "Identifying those prone to misperceiving their weight can help in designing obesity-prevention strategies targeting the specific needs of different groups."