Some Teens Were Overweight and Didn't Know It

Obese and overweight UK teens often thought they had a healthy weight

Slimming down can improve the health of overweight and obese people, but that knowledge isn't helpful if they don't realize they're overweight.

A new study explored body perceptions among teens in the United Kingdom (UK) and found that many overweight young people didn't perceive themselves as heavy.

"The mass media promote ideal standards for beauty that place great emphasis on slenderness in women and lean muscularity in men, which may be unattainable for many people," explained the authors of this new study, led by Sarah E. Jackson, PhD, of University College London. "Meanwhile, mass media coverage of obesity often uses images of severely obese individuals, which could give the impression that medical criteria for overweight and obesity require exceptionally high body weights."

Dr. Jackson and colleagues looked at data from the Health Survey of England for the years 2005 through 2012 to identify 4,979 teens between the ages of 13 and 15.

Body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height, was used to determine whether the teens were in a healthy, or "normal," weight range, or whether they were overweight or obese. The teens were asked if they felt "about the right weight," "too heavy" or "too light."

Most normal-weight teens (83 percent of boys and 84 percent of the girls) correctly felt that they were "about the right weight." However, only 60 percent of the overweight or obese teens said they felt they were "too heavy."

A total of 39 percent of the overweight or obese teens (47 percent of the boys and 32 percent of the girls) said they felt they were either "about the right weight" or "too light."

“This study was a cause for celebration and concern. Young people who think they’re overweight when they’re not can sometimes develop devastating eating disorders, so we’re delighted that most of the normal-weight teenagers had a realistic view of their body size," explained study author Jane Wardle, PhD, of Cancer Research UK, in a news release. “But we need to find effective ways of helping too-heavy teenagers slim down and maintain a healthier weight, and it’s vitally important that we find out whether it helps if they are more aware of their weight status.”

Further research among teens from different nations is needed to better understand this issue, Dr. Jackson and team noted.

A preview of this study was published online July 9 in the International Journal of Obesity. Cancer Research UK funded this research. Dr. Jackson and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.