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Misperception of Body Weight Poses Health Risks

Study Shows Dangers for Women Who Are Overweight but Consider Themselves to Be Normal Weight
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 22, 2010 -- Nearly one in four women who is overweight perceives her weight as normal, according to a new study.

The study also shows 16% of the normal-weight women studied had weight misperceptions, considering themselves overweight, says researcher Mahbubur Rahman, PhD, MBBS, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a senior fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women's Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

There were dangers with both groups of what he terms "misperceivers," he tells WebMD. "Overweight women who were misperceivers are less likely to have healthy weight-loss behaviors." Those of normal weight who thought they were overweight, likewise, had unhealthy behaviors, such as using diet pills or smoking.

The study is in the December issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

"The fact that people misperceive their body weight was already known," says Rahman, so the new research echoes some previous information. But in his study, he also wanted to see if the body weight misperceptions influenced health behavior.

Analyzing Height and Weight Data

Rahman obtained height and weight information from the medical charts of 2,224 women, ages 18 to 25.  

The women answered questions about healthy weight-related practices in the 30 days prior -- including eating less, eating differently, or exercising. They also answered questions about unhealthy behaviors, such as the use of diet pills, use of diuretics, vomiting, laxative use for weight control, cigarette smoking, or skipping meals.

For the study, Rahman used the standard definitions for normal, overweight, and obese, with BMIs below 25 termed normal, those 25-29 overweight, and 30 and higher obese.

The women also answered questions about education, ethnicity, marital status, household income, employment, and Internet use.

The women were divided into four categories:

  • Overweight women who thought they were normal or underweight
  • Overweight women who knew they were overweight
  • Normal-weight women who thought they were overweight
  • Normal-weight women who thought they were normal or underweight

Weight Perceptions

In all, 1,162 women were overweight; of these, 895 considered themselves overweight and 267 did not.

The other 1,062 women were normal weight, with 892 of them perceiving themselves as normal or underweight but 170 thinking they were overweight.

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