Americans’ ‘Ideal Weight’ Is 11 Pounds Heavier Than It Was 20 Years Ago

Much has been made of the worldwide “obesity epidemic,” and with good reason. Over a billion people on the planet are overweight, and 300 million of them are clinically obese. In the U.S. alone, over a third of adults (an estimated 70 million people) are obese, and another third are overweight. Let’s face it…in this “Supersize Me!” world, we’re a nation of supersized fatties.

What’s equally fascinating is that not only are Americans overweight in real life, they’re overweight in their fantasy lives as well.

Gallup finds that our “ideal weight” is growing as quickly as our real weight

Following up on polling research they began in 1990, the Gallup organization recently published a report that shows that as our actual weights have increased over the years, so have our “ideal weights.” Men on the average say that their ideal weight is 185 pounds; women on the average say that their ideal weight is 140 pounds. The actual average weight for men is 196 pounds (11 pounds higher than their stated “ideal”), and the actual average weight for women is 156 pounds (16 pounds heavier than their “ideal” weight).

Looking at the charts in the Gallup report is a somewhat shocking experience, because the two graph lines (Average Weight and Average Ideal Weight) are almost parallel throughout the twenty years from 1991 to 2011. In 1991, the actual average weight of men was 180 pounds and their ideal weight was 171 pounds; for women their 1991 actual average weight was 142 pounds and their ideal weight was 129 pounds. The trends are obvious in the charts – as both men’s and women’s actual weights increased, so did their ideal weights.

Almost as shocking as this trend of “creeping weight increase,” both actual and ideal, is the finding that in a country in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 67% of the population is overweight or obese, the majority of the respondents to this poll said that their current weight felt “about right.” And they said this just after listing an ideal weight 11 to 16 pounds less than their actual weight. Can you say denial? I think you can.

The causes of the obesity epidemic are many, but denial about it ain’t helping

Doctors, nutritionists, and health-care specialists have struggled to come up with explanations for the incredible rise in obesity worldwide, and most agree that the causes are deeply embedded in the very fabric of our societies, and that they happened as a reaction to socio-economic and technological forces such as:

• The development of labor-saving devices in the 20th century.

• The development of a “culture of consumption” in which more (be it more food or more stuff) is seen as not only a goal but a laudable goal.

• The increase in industrial processing of food and the development of a fast-food culture.

• The reliance on the automobile as a way of life.

• The IT revolution at work, meaning that sitting in front of computers all day is now what many people think of as work.

• The introduction of television, video games, and the Internet at home, all of which lead to inactivity and less exercise.

Whatever the causes, the effect seems to be devastating the country and radically affecting its citizens’ health. The treatment of obesity and diseases caused by obesity now constitutes 21% of total U.S. health care costs. Somehow I don’t think that this enormous problem is going to be solved by lowering our standards for what constitutes an ideal weight. Setting oneself a higher ideal weight as a dietary goal strikes me as just a convenient way to not have to try very hard to lose weight.

Interestingly, the results of the Gallup poll agree with my thesis. Although 50% of respondents said that their weight was “about right,” in other questions on the poll 54% of them said that they would like to lose weight. However, only 25% of them said that they were actually trying to do this.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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