American "Ideal Weight" Goes Up: Denial or Acceptance?

Gallup shows not only has the average weight of the American gone up, but so has the 'ideal weight' Americans say they want to be. Is this just a coincidence or are we onto something?

Recently a Gallup poll asked Americans about their dieting habits and what they consider an ideal weight. It’s mostly good news. First, an all-time high of 60 percent of Americans say that their weight is about right. This is great considering research like that of Peter Muennig from Columbia University found that women who were concerned about their weight had more mental and physical illnesses than those who were happy with their size, regardless of their weight. We keep trying to make people hate themselves healthy but, it turns out, people don’t take care of things they hate, and that includes their bodies. So more people liking their bodies means more people who believe those bodies are worthy of care.

But, according to this Gallup poll, 25 percent of Americans are still “seriously trying to lose weight.” The number is down but the diet industry continues to increase their profits every year -- currently topping sixty billion dollars. How can that be?

It’s possible that what has changed is simply what Americans consider to be “seriously trying.” “Seriously trying” used to mean Weight Watchers which, while it didn’t always work, wasn’t life threatening like weight-loss surgery and diet pills that give people heart attacks.

It’s possible that Americans have seen the scientific evidence for weight-loss efficacy: Long-term weight loss is only possible for a tiny fraction of people. Or, perhaps people got wise to the fact that BMI was created by a statistician in the 1800’s to look at the relative body size of large populations and is, in fact, not a measure of health at all. Maybe they found out that BMI was brought into vogue by insurance companies because it was cheaper to use body size as a proxy for health than to actually look at health.

It’s also possible that word got out that the disclaimers on every diet ad are the result of successful lawsuits by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has brought multiple suits against multiple companies for deceptive trade practices and never lost.

All the major studies including Matheson et. al., Wei et. al., and The Cooper Institute Longitudinal Studies have found the same thing: People who practice healthy habits have the same health outcomes regardless of size, making habits a much better determinant of future health than body size.

Of course it’s unfortunate that everything from profits to lazy medicine have led to 25 percent of people seriously pursuing something that nobody can prove is possible for a reason that nobody can prove is valid. But, with so much good evidence out there, there’s hope that we’ll bring that number to zero soon.

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