obesity inaccurate perceptions

We're not only far heavier than we were 20 years ago; our perception of what would be our "ideal" weight has risen too, says the Gallup Organization. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / October 25, 2011)

As we enter the season of the year in which Americans typically gain at least a pound or two that never goes away, a new report from the Gallup Poll finds that as our actual weight drifts upward, so do our perceptions of what our "ideal" weight would be. 

In Gallup's annual Health and Healthcare Survey, the nation's leading polling organization has asked Americans yearly how much they weigh and what their ideal weight would be. Compared to Americans' answers to those questions in 1991, both numbers -- actual weight and ideal weight -- have risen, although "ideal" weights have not quite kept pace with actual weight gains.

The average man now weighs 196 pounds; the average woman weighs 160 pounds. Both figures are 20 pounds greater than self-reported weights in 1990. 

But Americans' self-professed "ideal" selves have put on weight too. Women on average said their ideal weight should be 138 pounds -- up from 129 in 1991. Men on average said their ideal weight should be 181 pounds -- up from 171 in 1991.

Even after the adjustment, though, men and women were getting further and further from their ideal weight, said the Gallup Organization. Men were on average 15 pounds over their ideal weight and women were 22 pounds over their ideal. Much of the steady weight gain that comes with age, say researchers, appears to be the result of weight gain between the Thanksgiving holiday and New Year's Day (an average of about a pound, though the average is much higher for those who are already obese). That weight gain tends to set a new baseline for the next year.

Gallup's findings help paint a grim picture of mass delusion in the United States about its rising weight and the spate of health problems that come with it. American parents are notoriously poor judges of their childrens' weight, as well. The result: Primary care physicians, long reluctant to lecture their patients about weight loss, now debate how best to break the news to patients and their parents that they are above their healthy weights.

"Men and women are now adapting their ideal to their higher actual weights," the Gallup Organization explained in releasing the latest figures. "At the same time, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as overeweight [35% of men and 42% of women] has remained essentially unchanged over the past 20 years. While Americans are getting heavier, many may not recognize it or acknowledge it."