Fewer overweight adults are trying to lose weight

People may not realize they are overweight if those around them are too.

Despite overweight and obesity increasing in the US, a new study reveals that fewer overweight adults are trying to lose weight. While a number of factors influence this shift, researchers attribute it in part to the increasing prevalence and social acceptability of unhealthy weights. On the other hand, extreme weight loss tactics inspired by unrealistic ideals are not healthy either. We spoke with study author Andrew Hansen, a public health expert at Georgia Southern University, to learn more about these findings, and how we can find a middle ground.

ResearchGate: What was the motivation behind this study?

Andrew Hansen: While working on our research about people’s perception of their own weight, we observed that more people were incorrectly perceiving their body weight as just fine, when it was actually in the overweight or obese range. With social acceptance of a heavier weight becoming more of a norm, we hypothesized that people may be feeling less need to lose weight, because they perceived their weight to be normal. Our current study in JAMA demonstrates our hypothesis to be accurate.

RG: What did you find?

Hansen: We observed that the percentage of adults experiencing overweight or obesity who were also trying to lose weight decreased from 55 percent in 1988-1994 to 49 percent in 2009-2014. Adults with overweight who weren’t quite in the obesity range put forth the least weight loss effort. The largest decrease in weight loss effort was among Black women. These decreases in weight loss attempts happened at a time when overweight and obesity increased from about 52 percent in 1988-1994 to 66 percent in 2009-2014.

RG: Where did this data come from?

Hansen: We used data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES). This is a highly respected survey system used to collect data that represents the health and nutritional status of the general population in the United States. We compared data from three survey periods: 1988-1994, 1999-2004, and 2009-2014.

RG:  Why do you think fewer overweight adults are trying to lose weight?

Hansen: Reasons will vary with each individual. Some have tried and simply given up. People may give up because of a lack of social support, because they’ve been unsuccessful, to focus on other priorities like work and family, or because the built environment does not support a safe place for physical activity or play.

Some may not realize they are overweight. As people become busy with life obligations, weight gain happens slowly and quietly, so they don’t even notice it until clothes don’t fit. With acceptable body weight shifting to a heavier weight, some do not see a need and view themselves as just right. Often, individuals will compare themselves to others around them, rather than an absolute scale. So, if most people in a person’s social circles are overweight, then overweight is viewed as normal to them.

RG: What health implications could this have?

Hansen: The health implications are not good. In all the above examples, the individual is not exercising. If this is combined with poor dietary habits, there is not only weight gain, but severe health implications like increased cholesterol and glucose, and the risk for comorbidities like heart disease and diabetes. The cost to the individual and society goes up. On the bright side, there are many who have given up trying to lose weight, but exercise regularly. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle even with some added weight is much better than weight gain with no exercise or healthy diet.

RG: Physical health complications aside, could this trend be a reflection of better body image from a mental health perspective?

Hansen: The potential for this is good. Society continues to move away from unrealistic weight loss and magazines’ versions of an ideal body. As a result, people are able to feel more confident about their bodies as society recognizes diversity in body types. In addition, a greater emphasis on the message of physical activity for overall good health, rather than weight loss, has empowered those who once thought they needed to train like athletes to be healthy. It is important to continue these messages, so people can have the confidence to be physically active regardless of weight or physical abilities.

RG:  How else can this be encouraged?

Hansen: Continued efforts from public health should include increasing understanding about what is necessary and realistic to achieve good health. At the same time, all individuals and entities must foster a society that provides the environment to facilitate everyone’s journey to good health. The younger the journey starts, the better. But no matter what age, we all deserve some time to play and maintain our health.

Featured image courtesy of Allen Foster