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A third of youth misjudge their weight status; focus on weight not helpful, expert says

By Maggie Hennessy , 24-Jul-2014
Last updated on 25-Jul-2014 at 01:07 GMT

NHANES data on weight misperception

Nearly one in three (30%) children and adolescents in the US misperceive their weight status—the equivalent of 9.1 million youth, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).  

The survey, based on the responses of more than 6,100 children and adolescents ages 8 through 15 from 2005 through 2012, also found that a majority of overweight children (81% of boys, 71% of girls) believed that they were about the right weight. Moreover, nearly half of obese boys (48%) and 36% of obese girls considered themselves to be about the right weight.

Ted Kyle, advocacy advisor for the Obesity Society, said he wasn’t particularly surprised by these results. What troubled him most about the findings was their focus on body weight, which he said distracts from the real issue of health.

“What’s troubling is the distraction this provides from what’s important, which is health, in favor of this more prickly subject of weight,” Kyle told FoodNavigator-USA “The undercurrent here is that some folks have a mistaken perception that somehow telling somebody their body weight is not OK will help motivate them to change their health status. It’s pretty clear that the energy that goes into that can be counterproductive.”

Indeed, research has shown that obesity is a consequence of complex interactions between many variables—and thus goes much deeper than weight, eating habits and physical activity, he said. What’s more productive is focusing on healthy behavior—and more importantly, establishing healthy habits at a young age—especially given the pressure on weight and body image that youth face.

“As children are growing they go through all sorts of changes, and they get all kinds of messages of how they fit in, including lots of comments on body type, shape and weight. But how people see themselves isn’t helpful. It’s important to help kids find healthy ways to live, including healthy activities that will have lasting impact on health.”

Other key findings in the NHANES survey:

  • The prevalence of weight status misperception was higher among boys (32.3%) than girls (28.%) and lowest among non-Hispanic white (27.7%) children and adolescents compared with non-Hispanic black (34.4%) and Mexican-American (34.0%) children and adolescents.
  • Weight status misperception varied by age—33% of children 8–11 years misperceived their weight status versus 27% of adolescents aged 12–15 years.
  • Income level also played a role in weight misperception among boys and girls, with the numbers much lower among higher-income families (26.3%) compared to middle income (30.7%) and lower-income (32.5%) families.

Source: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2012
NCHS Data Brief Number 158, July 2014
Perception of Weight Status in U.S. Children and Adolescents Aged 8–15 Years, 2005–2012
Authors: Neda Sarafrazi, Ph.D.; Jeffery P. Hughes, M.P.H.; Lori Borrud, Ph.D.; Vicki Burt, Sc.M., R.N.; and Ryne Paulose-Ram, Ph.D., M.A.

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