Fewer teens consider themselves overweight despite obesity epidemic: study

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Fewer teens consider themselves overweight, leading experts to worry about an increase in childhood obesity, already considered an epidemic.

Researchers from the University of Luxembourg published a paper with data collected from over 40 countries, finding a significant decline in teens overestimating their weight (actual weight is higher than perceived weight) and an increase in underestimating it (not weighing as much as they think).

Experts said this shift could reduce how effective public health weight-loss interventions aimed at young people are.

“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,” lead author Anouk Geraets, from the University of Luxembourg, said in a press release.

“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,” she added.

Researchers speculated the trends may be a result of body image ideals shifting — pointing out that a strong and athletic body is the new ideal for both sexes — and it may be the reason for some changes in weight perception.

The study, published Monday in the journal Child and Adolescent Obesity, analyzed 745,000 adolescents from 41 countries — including the US, Canada and some countries in Europe — between 2002 to 2018. Specifically, researchers used data collected at four-year intervals from teenagers who were 11, 13 and 15 years old.

Child in pink socks stands on scales.
Experts warned the new trend could make it harder to tackle childhood obesity.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Young boy with tape measure around waist.
Experts on the paper theorized changing body ideals could play a part in the shift.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to the CDC, obesity was prevalent in 19.7% of children 2 to 19 years old, affecting about 14.7 million children and adolescents in the U.S.

Geraets said the study has clinical and public health implications.

However, Geraets noted more research is needed to understand the factors of these trends and to develop effective public health interventions.

“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,” she pointed out, “while the increase in underestimation might indicate the need for interventions to strengthen correct weight perception.”

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