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Is Fat the New Normal?

A rise in average body weight may be changing how we see ourselves.
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

If you're tall enough to stand out in a crowd, you're probably aware of your tallness – maybe even self-conscious about it. But imagine that you're in a room full of basketball players. Suddenly, you don't seem so tall anymore. Your above-average height feels normal.

The same scenario -- but with weight, not height -- may be happening throughout the U.S.

According to the CDC, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Now that the average body weight tends toward plump rather than svelte, the perception of what's normal may be sliding. And that may have health consequences that are flying under your radar.

The New Normal

The average American is 23 pounds heavier than his or her ideal body weight. If we equate "normal" with average, it's not much of a stretch to say it's normal to be fat.

"For children and for many adults who are overweight, they are starting to perceive themselves as the new normal," says obesity expert Robert F. Kushner, MD, MS. Overweight people may dismiss their weight, he tells WebMD, because they feel "everyone else looks exactly the same." Kushner is a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity.

"It's quite clear that people are changing their idea of what an acceptable body size is," says Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. As the average body weight goes up, there's more acceptance of heavier body types. This, in turn, clears the path for even more people to put on weight, says Christakis, who is the co-author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Change Lives.  

 

Are Americans Really Getting Fatter?

The rate of obesity has climbed dramatically in the past 20 years: A third of adults are obese today, compared to 23% in the late 1980s. But this trend may have reached a plateau. According to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the obesity rate has not changed significantly in the past few years.

That's no reason to become complacent, Kushner says. "The prevalence of obesity is leveling off, but it's leveling off at flood stage. So we need to turn that around."

Is Weight Gain Contagious?

How did we get to that "flood stage" of obesity? Maybe you should look around you.

"Our work suggests that weight gain spreads in social networks," says Christakis, who has researched the spread of obesity.

His findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, show that your odds of becoming obese rise by 57% if you have a friend who becomes obese and by 40% if your sibling becomes obese."We're social animals," Christakis says. "We're influenced by the choices and actions and appearance and behaviors of those around us."

In short, our social contacts -- the people in our lives -- have a big influence on what we eat, how much we exercise, and how we judge our own appearance. This may help explain why obesity rates are not the same throughout the country. In fact, there are what might be called obesity hotspots.

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