The prevalence of obesity in the United States continues to rise and contributes to the incidence of cardiovascular disease.1 One obstacle to effecting weight loss and a potential target for intervention is misperception of body size. Among obese individuals (body mass index [BMI] ≥30 [calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared]), body size misperception is defined as failure to recognize the need to lose weight.
To further elucidate the extent and significance of body size misperception and its potential impact on cardiovascular disease prevention, we examined obese subjects (N = 2056) from the Dallas Heart Study (DHS). In this multiethnic, urban cohort, we determined the prevalence of body size misperception and quantified its association with demographics, cardiovascular risk factors, anthropometric indices, and health beliefs and behaviors.
The DHS is a multiethnic, probability-based population sample of Dallas County adults aged 18 to 65 years (N = 6101) designed to study cardiovascular disease, with participants enrolled from July 2000 to January 2002. African Americans were intentionally oversampled to comprise 50% of the study cohort. To allow extrapolation of DHS prevalence data to the general population of Dallas County, sample weights were calculated for each participant to reflect selection probability for the DHS based on ethnicity, age, sex, and geographic stratum. Details of the DHS study design and cohort have been reported previously.2
Participants were shown the Stunkard figure rating scale,3 a well-validated gender-specific visual scale of 9 figures representing increasing body sizes from very thin (1) to very obese (9). Participants were asked to choose from the figures to answer the following questions about themselves: (1) “Choose your ideal figure” (perceived ideal body size) and (2) “Choose the figure that reflects how you think you look” (perceived actual body size). Among obese individuals, body size misperception was defined by selection of an ideal body size that was the same as or larger than the selected actual body size, representing failure to recognize a need for weight loss. This construct of body size misperception has been described and validated in prior studies.4,5
Using sample-weight adjustment, the prevalence of body size misperception was estimated for obese Dallas County adults overall and stratified by self-reported race/ethnicity. Characteristics for obese DHS participants with and without misperception were compared using the Fisher exact test for categorical variables and the unpaired t test or the Wilcoxon rank-sum test for continuous variables as appropriate.
The sample-weight adjusted prevalence of body size misperception among obese Dallas County adults was 8%. Misperception was significantly more common among African American (14%) and Hispanic (11%) than white subjects (2%; P < .001 vs both African American and Hispanic subjects).
Despite significant differences in perceived actual and ideal body size between those with and without body size misperception, only small differences were observed in BMI, with no significant difference in waist to hip ratio observed. The prevalence of hypertension was lower among those with body size misperception, but hypercholesterolemia and diabetes prevalence did not differ between the 2 groups (Table).
A higher socioeconomic status was not associated with a lower prevalence of body size misperception (P = .06 for education and P = .07 for income); the prevalence of body size misperception remained substantial even among those in the highest income and education strata, with 8% of those with a college education and 10% of obese subjects with a yearly family income of more than $30 000 having body size misperception.
Individuals with vs without body size misperception were more satisfied with their overall health and more likely to express feeling healthier than people of the same age. A significantly higher percentage of those with vs without body size misperception believed they had a low lifetime risk of myocardial infarction, hypertension, and diabetes; two-thirds of these already obese individuals estimated that they were at low lifetime risk of developing obesity. Participants with body size misperception were also less aware of prevalent hypertension and diabetes (Table).
Finally, regarding health behaviors, obese subjects with vs without body size misperception reported less exercise and visited physicians much less often, and among obese subjects who did visit a physician, those with body size misperception were less likely to report that a physician discussed therapeutic lifestyle interventions with them. Disparities in physician visits were not explained by differences in health insurance or levels of trust in physicians (Table).
This study expands the available literature on barriers to the treatment and prevention of obesity, characterizing body size misperception as a unique challenge and novel potential target in the obesity treatment paradigm. Previous population-based studies have reported on obese individuals, predominantly African American or Hispanic, who were “underassessors” of weight, as shown in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,6 or with body size misperception, as shown in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study.5 However, neither study described the cardiovascular phenotype and health beliefs associated with body size misperception.
We have shown that obese individuals with body size misperception have generally similar anthropometric measurements as obese individuals who appropriately recognize the need to lose weight. Moreover, the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors was not lower among those with vs without body size misperception. The high prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors among obese individuals with body size misperception emphasizes that misperception not only is an interesting psychosocial phenomenon but also has important public health implications.
Among obese individuals with body size misperception, we identified lower awareness of prevalent risk factors and overly optimistic beliefs about personal health and cardiovascular risk. This knowledge deficit was compounded by lower utilization of the health care system and less discussion of lifestyle modification during physician encounters, factors that may impede cardiovascular prevention for those with obesity and body size misperception.
In conclusion, body size misperception is surprisingly prevalent among obese adults from the general population, particularly among ethnic minorities. Overestimation of health and underestimation of risk, lower utilization of the health care system, and inadequate physician counseling all appear to contribute to this phenomenon, suggesting that a multifaceted intervention may be needed to counter the effects of body size misperception. Physicians must not only identify and counsel patients with body size misperception in the clinical setting but also partner with public health and community advocates to develop treatment programs that reach these individuals in their own communities.
Correspondence: Dr Das, Division of Cardiology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 5323 Harry Hines Blvd, Dallas, TX 75390-9047 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Author Contributions:Study concept and design: Powell, de Lemos, McGuire, Albert, and Das. Acquisition of data: Powell, de Lemos, McGuire, Vega, and Grundy. Analysis and interpretation of data: Powell, de Lemos, Banks, Ayers, Rohatgi, Khera, McGuire, Berry, Albert, Vega, Grundy, and Das. Drafting of the manuscript: Powell, Banks, Ayers, Albert, and Das. Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Powell, de Lemos, Rohatgi, Khera, McGuire, Berry, Vega, Grundy, and Das. Statistical analysis: Ayers. Administrative, technical, and material support: Vega and Grundy. Study supervision: de Lemos, Rohatgi, Khera, McGuire, Albert, and Das.
Financial Disclosure: None reported.
Funding/Support: Funding support for Dr Powell is provided by the Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Award (2-T32-HL007360-31) from the National Institutes of Health. Funding support for Dr Berry is provided by grant K23 HL092229 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and he also receives research funding from the Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care endowment at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Funding support for Dr Das is provided by an American College of Cardiology Foundation/GE Healthcare Career Development Award. Funding support for the Dallas Heart Study was provided by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation (Las Vegas, Nevada) and US Public Health Service General Clinical Research Center grant MO1-RR00633 from the National Institutes of Health/National Center Research Resources–Clinical Research.
Previous Presentation: This study was presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2009; November 17, 2009; Orlando, Florida.
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