Posted on Jul 04, 2023, 2 p.m.
According to cross-national research from the University of Luxembourg published in the journal Child and Adolescent Obesity, shifting trends in body weight perception have teens around the world underestimate their own weight which could undermine ongoing public health interventions that are aimed at curbing childhood obesity rates and tackling the global obesity epidemic.
“During this impressionable age, body weight perception (BWP) may influence a young person’s lifestyle choices, such as the amount and types of food they eat and their exercise habits,” says lead author Doctor Anouk Geraets, from the Department of Social Sciences, at the University of Luxembourg.
“So it’s concerning that we’re seeing a trend where fewer adolescents perceive themselves as being overweight – as this could undermine ongoing efforts to tackle increasing levels of obesity in this age group. Young people who underestimate their weight and therefore do not consider themselves to be overweight may not feel they need to lose excess weight and, as a result, they may make unhealthy lifestyle choices.”
This study included 746,121 adolescents between the ages of 11 to 15 years old from 41 countries and demonstrates that a person’s perception of their body weight may not accurately reflect their actual weight. Data was collected at 4-year intervals between 2002 and 2018 in the WHO collaborative International Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Study (HBSC).
The researchers modeled trends in BWP among adolescents over time across different countries adjusting for various factors to reveal that underestimation of weight increased as overestimation decreased over time in both genders with stronger trends for girls. While correct weight perception increased among girls it decreased among boys. Changes in correct weight perception differed across different countries but these changes could not be explained by an increase in country-level obesity/overweight prevalence.
The researchers suggest that the differences between girls' and boys' BWP may be because there are differences in body weight ideals, and these ideals have changed over time. Such as the increased underestimations and decreased overestimation of weight status over time among girls which may be explained by the emergence of a strong and athletic body as a new ideal contemporary body for both genders.
“This study has clinical and public health implications. The increase in correct weight perception and the decrease in overestimation may have a positive effect on unnecessary and unhealthy weight loss behaviors among adolescents, while the increase in underestimation might indicate the need for interventions to strengthen correct weight perception,” says lead author Doctor Anouk Geraets.
“More research is now needed to understand the factors underlying these time trends and to develop effective public health interventions.”
The researchers noted that while the large number of participants and countries represent a strength of this study, it is also a limitation as these only included countries from the USA, Canada, and Europe so the results can’t be generalized to other regions. Additionally, steps were taken to adjust the models for potential confounding factors, there could be other factors that may have played a role in the observed trends over time.
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