What Is Oblivobesity?

The problem with our children's obesity? They don't know they're obese.

Are children aware of what they weigh?. Dennis Hallinan/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Two recent reports indicate that the problem of epidemic childhood obesity is much compounded by associated obliviousness.  I will hazard a neologism: oblivobesity.  Houston, we have a problem.  And Hartford.  And every place in between.

The first report was issued by the CDC on July 23.  The study used a representative sample of children and adolescents in the U.S. to compare actual weight and body-mass-index, with perceptions of weight.

  The principal finding of note was that more than 80% of overweight boys and 70% of overweight girls misperceived their weight as “normal.”  Also of note, the frequency of such misperception declined as socioeconomic status rose, indicating that families with more resources were more likely to have heightened awareness of healthy weight.

A related paper followed about a week later, and was even more worrisome.  This study, published in Preventing Chronic Disease, also compared actual and perceived weight in a nationally representative cohort of children and adolescents.  The researchers then went on to look at the correlation of these measures with attempted weight loss.

As in the earlier paper, a high percentage of kids- and their parents- underestimated their weight.  This group was roughly 3 times less likely to attempt weight loss than overweight kids who accurately assessed their weight.

  But that wasn’t the truly disturbing finding.

Among the relatively small percentage of kids who OVERestimated their weight, the rate of attempted weight loss was more than 9 times higher than among kids who perceived their weight status accurately.  This is an alarmingly high rate of “dieting” among kids who have no need to lose weight in the first place.

Above all, this study highlights the perils of a societal preoccupation with weight, rather than a focus on health and the lifestyle factors that support it.  Eating well and being active are important regardless of weight, because they promote health.  Weight is merely one among many measures that suggest something about overall health- albeit an important one.

The high rate of dieting among children who over-estimated their weight is of real concern.  This behavioral pattern suggests impaired body image perception, and vulnerability to eating disorders.  The more common error of under-estimating weight and its effect on lowering the likelihood of weight control efforts is also of concern.

These opposing problems are really two sides of the same coin, the fixation on weight rather than health.  In general, dieting is ill-advised both for overweight children and those misperceiving their weight as high when it isn't.  Eating well and being active are advisable for both groups- and all other children, too.


We do need to raise awareness about the importance of childhood obesity- but we need to emphasize that what really matters is health, not some number of pounds.  If a devotion to healthful behaviors were the norm in our culture, we would not look on as weight perception- accurate or otherwise- talked our children into dieting they do not need, or out of weight control efforts they do.

The weight of our children matters for reasons that are more than skin deep.  Childhood obesity is on the causal pathway to a whole array of scourges that siphon years from the lives of our children, and life from their years- fatty liver disease the most recent item to make that dubious marquee.  Knowledge may not reliably be power, but oblivion is unfailingly disempowering.   We face a unique challenge where widespread obesity, and prevailing obliviousness, converge.  We must work to overcome that.  Even as we do, we must take precautions to cultivate a focus on health as the ends, and healthful living as the means, so that obliviousness to weight is not replaced by obsession with it.  Neither is healthy.

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