The study, at Georgia State University, tracked data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for nearly 2,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16 in the early 1990s and over 2,500 teenagers in the same age range between 2007 and 2012. The survey included the body-mass index of each child in the study and also their answer to the question: “Do you consider yourself to be overweight, underweight, or just about the right weight?”
The research found that fewer adolescents think they are overweight today, even though more of them are overweight, Ferdman reports.
“Within a short time scale, the likelihood that overweight or obese teens believe that they are overweight declined by almost 30 percent,” Dr. Jian Zhang, a researcher from the university, told Ferdman.
And this misperception was more pronounced among the younger children as overweight 12-year-olds in the study were almost 40 percent less likely to recognize that they were overweight today, compared to 20 years ago, Ferdman reports.
A report last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Protection found that almost half of America’s obese youth don’t know they’re obese.
“The trend is very dangerous,” Dr. Jian Zhang told Ferdman.
Adding to this conundrum, a different study published last year by Zhang found that parents are “significantly less likely to realize that their child is obese than they were 20 years ago.” This was also the result of a study out of NYU Langone Medical Center that found most parents of overweight children consider them to be “about the right weight.”
“The society as a whole is stuck with a vicious cycle,” Zhang told Healthday last year. “Parents incorrectly believe their kids are healthy, they are less likely to take action, and so it increases the likelihood that their kids will become even less healthy.”
Zhang attributes these misperceptions to the fact that people judge their weight based on the people around them, and the people around them are getting fatter.
This is especially true in Kentucky, which ranks first in the nation for high-school obesity, at 18 percent and eighth for obesity in 10 to 17-year-olds, at almost 20 percent, according to the “States of Obesity” report.
Zhang also notes that overweight and obese teens may be reluctant to admit that they are overweight because of the harsh messages relayed by the weight-loss industry.
Ferdman writes that the solution is not as easy as just informing teens that they are overweight, especially because teens often have fragile body images.
“We must be very careful when we, as parents, teachers, or health care professionals, make an effort to correct the misperception among teens,” Zhang told Ferdman. “It has to be a pro-health, not anti-obesity, campaign.”