New study shows obese people are in denial about their weight

Survey shows that fewer than 10% of those who are clinically obese accept they have a serious weight problem

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire An overweight woman
An overweight woman

A majority of obese people would not describe themselves as “obese”, and many would not even describe themselves as “very overweight”, according to a new study.

In one of the first studies of its kind to examine perceptions of obesity, fewer than 10% of those who are clinically obese accept they have a serious weight problem.

In a 2012 survey of around 2,000 adults, only 11% of obese women accurately acknowledged they were “obese”, with most describing themselves as “very overweight” or “just right”.

Meanwhile, among men, only 7% correctly described themselves as being “obese” and another 16% as “very overweight”. Weight loss experts in the North East said the findings of the study by Cancer Research UK were a concern as increasing numbers of people struggle with their weight in the region.

Hannah Mayer, peadiatric dietician at Gateshead Queen Elizabeth hospital, said: “The results of the study do not surprise me as more and more people do not recognise that they are obese. It is an issue with adults but it is also an issue with parents who don’t acknowledge that their child is overweight – it can be quite hard to address the issue with parents as they can feel upset.

“A possible reason as to why people don’t think they are overweight is that those around them are also bigger and they see it as normal.

“Studies such as this one by Cancer Research UK are helpful in raising awareness of the risks associated with being overweight and to make sure people take notice of their size.

“It would be lovely if, in four or five years, we started to see a reduction in the numbers of people very overweight and obese, but I don’t think this trend will reverse that quickly.” Approximately 10% of people in the survey knew the body mass index (BMI) threshold for obesity, and those who did were more likely to define themselves as “obese”.

Dietitian Hannah Mayer at the the Queen Elizabeth Hospital
Dietitian Hannah Mayer at the the Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Researchers suggest that as bigger sizes become the new “normal”, people are less likely to recognise the health problems associated with their weight.

Prof Jane Wardle, co-author and director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at University College London, said: “It’s a real worry that people don’t recognise that their weight places them in the obese category, because it means they aren’t aware they are at increased risk of a number of health problems, including cancer.

“This is despite increased media coverage of obesity, and public health campaigns aimed at improving public awareness.

“The term ‘obese’ is often considered derogatory, which may be why so many people reject it.

“Mass media often illustrate obesity in a way that people find offensive, with pictures of bulging beer bellies and huge behinds, so people shy away from these images.

“But we also asked people whether they felt they were ‘very overweight’ and the majority of those who were obese did not accept this term either.

“This is a real problem, as it means they are un­likely to identify with health messages on the subject of weight.

“We need to establish better ways for health professionals to address this sensitive subject and communicate with people whose health would benefit from positive lifestyle changes.”

Recent data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed that the North East had the highest obesity-related hospital admissions in the country in 2012/13, at 73 per 100,000 population. This is more than triple the England average at 21 per 100,000. A number of areas in the region polled particularly badly, with County Durham Primary Care Trust having the highest rate of admissions in England at 103 per 100,000. Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead also made the top 11.

Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital has been making sure it is well placed to cope with an ever growing population, training its staff in safer bariatric patient handling methods and increasing awareness of what equipment and resources are available.

Bariatrics, is the branch of medicine which deals with the causes, treatment and prevention of obesity. Geraldine Beaney, clinical ergonomics advisor at the hospital said: “It’s a sad fact that obesity is becoming more common among the general population, so we need to make sure that our staff are well prepared to care for these patients with additional needs.

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire An overweight man eating fast food
An overweight man eating fast food

“This training will include speakers, a discussion forum and will also demonstrate equipment choices available from specialist providers to help prevent staff sustaining injuries to themselves while moving larger patients, and to promote a positive patient experience.

“Staff are guided through ‘the bariatric journey from home, to hospital, to end of life’ and will meet the needs of bariatric patients and ensure their safety and dignity.” Medical problems associated with obesity include heart disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

Deborah Southworth, clinical ergonomics advisor at the Queen Elizabeth said: “If a family are all overweight or obese then it is normal for them and trying to get out of the situation can be hard.

“People who seriously struggle with their weight need to be shown what foods they should eat and we have to look at attitudes towards food.

“I don’t know why the North East has a real problem with obesity, but it is impacting on many different areas and aspects of life.”

Around 18,000 cases of cancer in the UK each year are linked to being overweight or obese. Excess weight is known to increase the risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the breast in post-menopausal women, bowel, womb, oesophagus, pancreas, kidney and gallbladder.

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “This study provides an interesting insight into how people who are overweight view them-selves. Carrying those extra pounds can have serious health implications.

“Fat cells are active, releasing hormones and other chemicals that affect many parts of the body, and increase the risk of cancer.

“Maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the most important ways of reducing the risk of cancer, for both men and women. It’s so important that health messaging and awareness campaigns are as effective as possible in supporting people of all shapes and sizes to make healthy choices.”

The Journal launched its Great North Fitness Revolution campaign years ago to encourage people of all ages, shapes and sizes to keep active through regular exercise and by adopting a good diet.


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