In fact, the researchers believe that those messages may actually undermine motivation to adopt exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits.
Published in a recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Obesity, the cross-cultural study finds that women are more likely to categorize themselves as overweight than men, both overall and within each ethnic group.
In addition, African Americans are least likely and whites most likely to consider themselves overweight. The study finds that even among many adults of average or normal weight -- men in particular -- a self-perceived weight problem correlates with sedentary behavior.
White women of average weight are the only ethnic-gender group studied in which the proportion of sedentary individuals is not higher among those who consider themselves overweight, versus average weight, the study shows. White women are also the only ethnic-gender group in which average-weight individuals comprise the majority.
The researchers noted that in addition to cultural expectations, greater access to fitness programs, "walkable" neighborhoods, quality child and elder care, and flexible work hours all help make the choice to be active easier for white women overall than their Latina and African American counterparts.
"These data suggest that our society's emphasis on weight loss rather than lifestyle change may inadvertently discourage even non-obese people from adopting or maintaining the physical activity necessary for long-term good health," said Dr. Antronette Yancey, lead author of the study and associate professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health.
"All groups may benefit from messages that shift the focus away from a specific target weight and associated calorie counting, and instead promote increased physical activity and healthy eating habits," said Yancey. "We still need to learn more about the relationship between overweight self-perception and healthy lifestyle change, and the apparent protective role of the cultural valuation of thinness and stigmatization of obesity in the battle of the bulge."
In a study that should worry health officials, Thomson Medstat found that consumer perceptions simply do not reflect the facts. Two thirds of American adults are overweight, 30.5 percent are obese, and 4.7 percent are morbidly obese.
The food industry, which has come under immense pressure to address the growing obesity crisis, has long maintained that the epidemic is the result of a number of factors, not least lifestyle changes. Many in the industry argue that being overweight comes down to a simple balance: energy intake versus energy burned.
In order to address this issue, they claim, regulators should look not only at the food industry, but also consumer lifestyles in general.
The UCLA study used data from the 2002-03 Los Angeles County Health Survey, a random telephone survey conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Of 14,154 eligible adults contacted, 8,167 completed interviews, or 58 percent.
Body mass index (BMI) was calculated from self-reported weight and height, and each individual was classified as underweight, normal, overweight or obese. Self-perceived weight status was measured using direct questions asking participants to identify themselves as overweight, underweight or average for their height.
Sedentary behavior was measured using standardized questions from an adaptation of the short version of the International Physical Activity Questionnaire.