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10 August 2012
Fat-thinking leads to real obesity

Intriguing new research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology suggests that normal weight teenagers who perceive themselves as fat are more likely to grow up to be fat. "Perceiving themselves as fat even though they are not may actually cause normal weight children to become overweight as adults," says Koenraad Cuypers, the lead researcher of the new study. The new study is the first to look at the relationship between perceived weights and actual weights in a longitudinal study of teenagers and young adults.

The study followed 1,196 normal weight teenagers from 1995 to 2008, when they had grown to be between 24 and 30 years of age. Half of the participants still had normal weights as adults. But among those who were overweight, the researchers found a clear difference: 59 percent of the girls who had felt fat as a teen became overweight (by BMI) in adulthood. If waist circumference was used as the measure of obesity, then the percentage of teens that initially perceived themselves as fat and later became overweight as adults was 78 percent.

In contrast, only 31 percent of the girls who did not consider themselves fat during adolescence were found in the follow-up study to be overweight.

Somewhat predictably, the study also showed that normal weight girls were more likely than boys to rate themselves as overweight: 22 percent of girls and nine per cent of the boys saw themselves as fat in the first survey.

The researchers say one explanation may be related to psychosocial stress, which can be associated with gaining weight around the waist. Under this scenario, the psychosocial stress related to having (or not having) an ideal body type, along with the perception of oneself as overweight, can result in weight gain.

"Another explanation may be that young people who see themselves as fat often change their eating habits by skipping meals, for example. Research has shown that dropping breakfast can lead to obesity," Cuypers says.

The researchers checked whether physical activity made a difference in the relationship between perceived and actual obesity. But they found that exercise could not compensate for the negative effect of feeling overweight at a young age.

Cuypers believes that the relationship between a perception of being overweight and the development of overweight is something the school system and society as a whole must address in order to reverse the trend and reduce societal problems associated with obesity. "The weight norms for society must be changed so that young people have a more realistic view of what is normal. The media must cease to emphasize the super model body as the perfect ideal, because it is not," Cuypers says.

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Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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