Health — 09 August 2012

Teenagers of normal weight who feel they are fat are more likely to grow up to be obese as young adults, according to a new study in Norway.

“Perceiving themselves as fat even though they are not may actually cause normal weight children to become obese as adults,” says Koenraad Cuypers, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Examining data from an extensive health survey of nearly 1,200 men and women, Cuypers and his colleagues studied the relationship between actual weight and perceived weight. The initial stage of the survey was conducted from 1995 to 1997, when the participants were teenagers. A follow up study was conducted 11 years later, when they were between the ages of 24 and 30.

Half of the participants still had normal weights as young adults. But among those who were overweight, the researchers found a clear difference.

Fifty-nine percent of the girls who felt fat as teenagers became overweight as adults, when measured by their body mass index, or BMI.

When waist circumference was used to measure obesity, then the percentage of teens that became overweight rose to 78 percent.

The researchers concluded that there are many complex and different reasons to explain why normal weighted teens with a poor body image can grow up being fat. In addition to the perception of being overweight, the psychological stress associated being fat — and not having the ideal body — can actually result in more weight gain.

“Another explanation may be that young people who see themselves as fat often change their eating habits by skipping meals, for example.  Research has shown that dropping breakfast can lead to obesity,” Cuypers says.

The research also revealed that teenage boys were less likely to consider themselves overweight than normal weight girls. Only 9% of boys perceived themselves as overweight, compared to 22% of girls. One reason for the gender difference may be that advertisers and media focus more often on girls instead of boys.

“Girls thus experience more psychosocial stress to achieve the ideal body,” Cuypers says. “Society needs to move away from a focus on weight, and instead needs to emphasize healthy eating habits, such as eating regular and varied meals and eating breakfast.”

The Norwegian study isn’t the first to arrive at this conclusion. Previous studies have found that h normal weight men and women gain weight gain over time when they perceived themselves as fat.

To reverse the obesity trend, Cuypers says schools and society must address the connection between perceived obesity and actual obesity.

“The weight norms for society must be changed so that young people have a more realistic view of what is normal,” says Cuypers. “In school you should talk to kids about what are normal body shapes and show that all bodies are beautiful as they are. And, last but not least, the media must cease to emphasize the supermodel body as the perfect ideal, because it is not.”

Cuypers’ research is published in the Journal of Obesity.

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Elizabeth Magill

Elizabeth is a professional writer who holds an MBA. Liz focuses her writing on health news, medical conditions, healthy living, small business, career and work, and financial news. Her clients include The Motley Fool, LIVESTRONG.com, Healthline, HealthNews, Intuit Small Business Blog and many others. She’s author of multimedia App and Vook Conduct a Job Interview: The Video Guide.

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