Nearly half the obese youth in America don’t know they’re obese

Students dish up carrots, cucumbers, cornbread and bananas at Longfellow Elementary School in Portland as part of The Hunger-Free Kids Act, which limits calories and salt, adds more whole grains and requires daily servings of fruits and vegetables in school lunches.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Students dish up carrots, cucumbers, cornbread and bananas at Longfellow Elementary School in Portland as part of The Hunger-Free Kids Act, which limits calories and salt, adds more whole grains and requires daily servings of fruits and vegetables in school lunches. Buy Photo
Posted July 24, 2014, at 11:03 a.m.

The good news is obesity rates finally seem to be leveling off in the U.S. after decades of furious growth. The bad news is America’s youth still appear to be dangerously unaware of the problem.

In the U.S., 42 percent of children and adolescents, between the ages of 8 and 15, who are obese misperceive their weight as normal, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Among obese boys, the rate is nearly 48 percent; for obese girls, it’s roughly 36 percent. And America’s overweight children are even more confused about the relative size of their waistlines — some three-quarters of overweight children and teens consider themselves to be “about the right weight.”

The prevalence of weight misperception isn’t only characteristic of the country’s heavier children. About one-half of America’s underweight children don’t know they’re underweight, and roughly one-third of all children in the U.S. — overweight, underweight or just-the-right weight — mistake their weight status for something other than it is.

But, given the exceptionally high rate of obesity among American adults, which is the highest of any major country in the world, the lack of self-perception found in the country’s obese children should be particularly alarming. Nearly one-third of the children in the U.S. are considered overweight, according to the Food and Research Action Center, and roughly 35 percent of them go on to become obese in adulthood.

Obesity is a national health epidemic. While it is considered a disease itself, it has also been linked to a number of other conditions, including heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. It’s also a serious economic problem. As of 2008, the annual medical costs alone of obesity amounted to almost $150 billion, according to the CDC.

It also is at the center of the country’s public school lunch program overhaul, which has been a key policy issue for first lady Michelle Obama. Ongoing debates, which range from what should be considered a vegetable serving to whether new, healthier options are making kids skip out on lunch entirely, have become especially heated with the new school year approaching. And there’s good reason to believe recent menu tweaks haven’t gone far enough — a number of junk food items, including Cheetos, funnel cake and Domino’s, were among those flaunted at the School Nutrition Association’s latest annual conference.

The fact that so many overweight American children and teens don’t know they’re overweight is worrisome, because it’s likely to perpetuate the country’s overeating — and under-exercising — problem.

“Accurate self-perception of weight status has been linked to appropriate weight control behaviors in youth,” the CDC report says.

A study conducted in 2011 found that weight perception was more likely to affect changes in exercise and eating habits than actual weight status.

“Children who don’t have a correct perception of their weight don’t take steps to lose weight,” Neda Sarafrazi, one of the report’s authors, told NPR.

It’s unreasonable to expect America’s youth to take better care of themselves if they aren’t even aware they need to.

Ferdman is a reporter for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog covering food policy, consumer business and Latin American economics. He previously was a staff writer at Quartz.

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