If you happen to be over 30 (like me), you may not realize quite how much visual material is passed around on social media today by those rather younger than you (and me).

But among teenagers this visual material may (honestly) be adding to a very real health problem … a group perception (delusion?) that those who actually are overweight or even obese, well, just aren’t.

According to a large study just published by Zhang et al. in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this week, an increasing number of overweight adolescents in America “think they are just fine” … but …

Based on data from and interviews with adolescents aged between 12 and 16 years of age participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (HNANES) in 1988–1994 or 2007–2012:

  • The probability of medically overweight/obese adolescents self-perceiving as “overweight” declined by 29% from 1988-94 to 2007-12.
  • This lower tendency to accurately assess whether they were overweight was most pronounced among whites and least pronounced among blacks.
  • Both boys and girls interviewed in the 2007-12 group were significantly less likely to accurately self-perceive as overweight than among those in the 1988-1994 group.


One can find a lot more detail in a commentary on the research by Brown on the MedPageToday web site — or of course you can read the full text of the actual article for yourself.

To quote Zhang et al., the decline among teenagers to be able to recognize that they are overweight

maybe indicative of a generational shift in body weight perceptions, presenting a vast challenge to obesity prevention among adolescents.

Peer influence is well known to be of great importance among adolescents, affecting everything from who’s “cool” and “in” to dress, language, style, behavior, you name it. If it really has become more socially acceptable for many of us to be overweight (which seems to be the case) and, on top of that, that tendency to not recognize the fact is increasing significantly over time among younger members of society, then we are going to be in for a real shock 60 or so years from now when (as opposed to living to 100) we start to see life expectancies drop as we deal with the complications of a whole variety of chronic disorders closely related to obesity.

Of course this won’t bother me ‘cos I shan’t be around to monitor the fallout … and it will probably be a major opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry — if we really can develop anti-obesity agents that are as effective and safe as the (now mostly generic) drugs we have been using for years to control things like arrhythmia and elevated lipid levels.

About Mike Scott

Mike Scott is a highly experienced health care communications strategist with Calcium. He is also a board member of three different patient advocacy organizations. To get more detail, see his profile on LinkedIn.

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