THURSDAY, Sept. 2, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Many Americans have skewed perceptions when it comes to their weight, often believing they are thinner than they really are, even when the scales are shouting otherwise, a new poll finds.
As part of the Harris Interactive/HealthDay survey, respondents were asked to provide their height and weight, from which pollsters calculated their body-mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. Respondents were then asked which category of weight they thought they fell into.
Thirty percent of those in the "overweight" class believed they were actually normal size, while 70 percent of those classified as obese felt they were simply overweight. Among the heaviest group, the morbidly obese, almost 60 percent pegged themselves as obese, while another 39 percent considered themselves merely overweight.
These findings may help to explain why overweight and obesity rates in the United States continue to go up, experts say.
"While there are some people who have body images in line with their actual BMI, for many people they are not, and this may be where part of the problem lies," said Regina Corso, vice president of Harris Poll Solutions. "If they do not recognize the problem or don't recognize the severity of the problem, they are less likely to do something about it."
And that means that obesity may be becoming the new norm, raising the specter of increasing rates of health threats such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
"I think too many people are unsure of what they should actually weigh," said Keri Gans, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "For many, they have grown up in a culture were most people are overweight and that is the norm, or they have been surrounded by too many celebrities and fashion in the media and think very thin is the norm."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of adults aged 20 and older are obese, and 34 percent are overweight. Among children, 18 percent of teens aged 12 to 19 are obese, 20 percent of children aged 6 to 11 are obese, as are 10 percent of kids aged 2 to 5.
Most respondents to the poll who felt they were heavier than they should be blamed sloth, rather than poor eating habits, for their predicament.
"In the mindset of most Americans, they're not looking at this as a food problem as much as an exercise problem," Corso said.
According to the poll, 52 percent of overweight people and 75 percent of both the obese and morbidly obese felt they didn't exercise enough.
"We're seeing the couch potato stigma [syndrome]," Corso said. "Three out of five Americans overall are saying they don't exercise as much as they should."
Added Gans: "It is sad that 59 percent of people who responded know they should be getting more exercise but yet aren't. Maybe they set the bar too high and forget that simply walking counts as exercise."
Food appeared to be a lesser culprit than lack of exercise in people's minds, with 36 percent of overweight respondents, 48 percent of obese respondents and 27 percent of those morbidly obese feeling they ate more than they "should in general."
A third of overweight people, 55 percent of obese people and 59 percent of morbidly obese people felt they ate too much of the wrong types of food.
As for weight-loss interventions, the respondents deemed surgery the most effective method, followed by prescription drugs, then drugs and diet-food supplements obtained over-the-counter.
About half felt that procedures such as gastric bypass and stomach stapling were either very or fairly effective in helping people shrink their girth. Faith in these remedies seemed similar, regardless of the respondents' weight.
"Americans like the quick fix and that's what they think the surgery is even though there are so many other things" that work, Corso said. "And so many people reverse their own surgery. These numbers are staggering."
Dr. Mitchell Roslin, chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, noted that "when [Dr. Everett Coop, surgeon general in the 1980s] wrote 'Shape Up America,' he said the biggest health problem facing America was not AIDS, not cancer, it's obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Since then ... we've seen nothing but a rise in obesity despite all of these efforts that have gone on now since the 1980s."
"The American public knows this but it's hard and it's something that they're not quite ready to do," Corso added. "This wake-up call still isn't ringing as loudly as it could."
The poll included 2,418 adults (aged 18 and over) who were surveyed online between Aug. 17 and 19.
Read more about the poll methodology and findings at Harris Interactive.
To check your BMI, visit the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.