This article originally appeared in Tips on Life & Love from Simon & Schuster.
Obesity is an epidemic in the United States, but so is ignorance. Many adults underestimate their own weight, and they also fail to identify obesity in their children. The consequences may have a devastating effect on the health of everyone, as explained in The Lucky Years.
A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology turned conventional wisdom on its head when it reported that nearly 40 percent of overweight women and a little more than 10 percent of obese women believed themselves to be of normal weight or underweight. The general media has us thinking that most women perceive themselves as fat, but the same study showed that only 16 percent of normal-weight women in the study saw themselves as overweight. One of the study’s authors makes a good point: when the world around you is obese, you begin to identify overweight as normal, and this thinking is not based on the scale but on how you simply perceive yourself in your context.
And it’s not just excess fat that people are oblivious to: nearly two-thirds of parents underestimate their children’s weight. According to a study published in 2014 in the journal Pediatrics, half of parents don’t even see that their children are overweight or obese. What’s more, about 30 percent of kids and teens ages eight to fifteen misperceive their own weight status. Among children and teens who were deemed overweight by medical standards (between the 85th and 95th percentiles on the CDC’s growth chart), 76 percent thought they were “about right”; approximately 23 percent said they were overweight. Among obese kids and teens (those in the 95th percentile and higher on the chart), about 42 percent thought they were okay weight-wise, while 57 percent believed they were in the “overweight” category. Younger kids, boys, and children from poorer families were more likely to misperceive their weight.
Our reluctance to acknowledge our weight problems affects our health tremendously. For example, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and postmenopausal obese women are nearly 60 percent more likely to develop this cancer compared to their healthy-weight counterparts. Ignorance may be bliss in some circumstances, but in many areas of health, ignorance can be deadly.