Despite the broad publicity concerning the epidemic increase in obesity in the U.S., many Americans who are overweight are failing to see themselves as in the overweight or obese category.
According to a new National Consumers League (NCL; Washington) study conducted by Harris Interactive, only 12% of U.S. adults say they have ever been told by a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional that they are obese.
Following the recent announcement by RAND Corporation, which notes that the prevalence of American adults who are classified with severe or morbid obesity is increasing at a much faster rate than the prevalence of moderate obesity, the NCL released new survey data about consumers' misconceptions about their weight and knowledge of weight-loss options.
The survey found a disconnect between the way people perceive their weight, and their actual weight category based on the body mass index (BMI), the current "gold standard" measurement for obesity.
U.S. adults were much more likely to refer to themselves as "overweight" rather than "obese" and consistently identified themselves as being in less severely overweight groups. In fact, 52% of respondents referred to themselves as overweight, and only 12 % as obese, severely obese, or morbidly obese.
But, based on BMI calculations using self-reported height and weight information, among the 96% of respondents who reported height and weight, 3% are actually "overweight," whereas 34% are actually obese, severely obese or morbidly obese.
Among respondents who are obese according to a BMI measurement, 82% consider themselves to be simply "overweight," and only a minority of all respondents (20%) claimed to know their BMI number.
NCL President Linda Golodner, said, "We found that while many consumers view obesity as a legitimate disease, they don't want to identify themselves as 'obese.' Weight is a highly personalized, complicated issue, and many overweight and obese consumers are in need of help."
In an interview with Medical Device Daily, Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, a founding director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that she sees this misperception in her practice "all the time."
"We tell people, 'You're clinically obese,' And they go, 'Wow, I thought I had a few pounds to lose, but I didn't know that I was medically obese.'"
Fernstrom put some of the onus for this on the medical community, saying that doctors often fail to be direct enough about their patients' weight problems. Additionally, she said that physicians too often tell patients what to do but not how to do it.
"No physician's office," she told MDD, "unless they're a bariatric specialist, can do this."
And she predicted that more physician offices will eventually have — and certainly ought to have — dieticians and/or nutritionists who have the time and the expertise to counsel overweight and obese patients.
Among other findings from the survey:
• 61% of respondents said that obesity is considered taboo in society, and 50% attribute the condition to a "lack of will power."
• 37% said that obese people should pay more for health insurance, and 27% said that it is acceptable to make fun of obesity.
• 79% of respondents said weight-loss surgery can be a life-saving treatment, 49% agree that there is a stigma associated with using surgery as a weight-loss option, but 47 %held a very negative or somewhat negative view of weight-loss surgery.
Fernstrom said, "There is a serious disconnect between an individual's perception of both what it means to be overweight and the health risks of carrying extra pounds. While many consumers know that weight loss can improve the illnesses associated with excess weight, they do not have the information to separate unsubstantiated weight-loss claims from evidence-based strategies to support their weight-loss efforts."
Also from the survey:
• About half (52%) of respondents said that they have talked about losing weight with their doctor, although those who are obese are more likely to have done so.
• Among those who have discussed weight loss with their doctor, nearly three in five report that their doctors recommended a diet change (47%) and/or exercise regimen (35%). But only one-third discussed the health risks associated with their weight, and only 10% said their doctor helped them develop a plan to lose weight.
• Of the weight-loss options other than regular diet and exercise discussed in the survey, respondents reported being most familiar with: organized weight loss programs (56%); OTC medications (42%); weight-loss surgery (41%); and prescription medications (39%).
• Organized weight-loss plans were perceived very or somewhat positively by most respondents (69%), followed by counseling/psychiatry (55%), and intensive weight loss "camp" (45%). More than a third (38%) held a very positive or somewhat positive view of weight-loss surgery, while a third thought positively of prescription weight-loss medications (35%), acupuncture (34%), and hypnosis (33%).
The survey of 1,978 adult Americans, was conducted online by Harris Interactive from March 6-12 of this year.
NCL has launched a new consumer education campaign called "Choose to Lose." NCL also unveiled new Internet resources for consumers who may need to lose weight — at http://www.nclnet.org/obesity.