A recently published Swiss study finds misperceptions of body image among young people that are associated with being overweight or obese.
The study, which takes data on nearly 14,000 school children in Bern, Basel and Zurich, found that the percentage of children aged 12-15 suffering from excess weight and obesity was broadly stable over the 15 year span of the research.
In addition, the research reveals significant differences between boys and girls. The percentage of boys aged 12-15 that were overweight or obese (27%) was 5 percentage points higher than for girls (22%) of the same age.
Why boys are more likely to be overweight than girls appears to be partly explained by misperceptions of body image.
55% of girls reported wanting to be thinner and 57% said they wanted to lose fat, percentages far higher than the 22% of girls considered overweight or obese. 44% of girls of a normal weight thought they were too fat, said the report.
By contrast, 26% of boys reported wanting to be thinner and 36% said they wanted to lose fat, percentages far closer to realty – 27% of boys were considered to be an unhealthy weight.
In line with gender beauty stereotypes, 74% boys wanted to be more muscular, compared to 49% of girls.
Among those considered overweight or obese the percentages swung the other way. Among overweight or obese girls, only 84% thought they were overweight. Among boys the same percentage was 63%. 16% of overweight or obese girls and 37% of overweight or obese boys thought they were a healthy weight. 2% of overweight boys even reported thinking they were too thin.
The research underlines a key challenge in tackling obesity. An overweight person who thinks they are already a healthy weight is unlikely to change their lifestyle.
Another challenge is a widespread acceptance that a drift towards an unhealthy waistline is a natural and normal aspect of ageing. The percentage of Switzerland’s population carrying unhealthy excess weight rises dramatically with age. By the time men reach 65 nearly 62% are overweight or obese. The same figure for women is 46%.
Aligning perception with reality can yield significant health benefits. Thinking you are a healthy weight when you’re not can increase the risk of suffering from many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type II diabetes and certain cancers. At the same time, thinking you’re overweight when you’re not comes with risks too.