Can Thinking You’re Fat Make You Fat?

Normal weight teenagers who just thought they were fat gained weight over the years

(RxWiki News) There may be something to the saying ‘think thin’. Misperceptions of being overweight may cause unhealthy dieting practices that result in weight gain.

A new study found that many teens that thought they were fat but were really a normal weight ended up becoming overweight later in life.

New approaches to teaching healthy practices to teens could be very helpful.

"Talk to your doctor about weight ranges."

Koenraad Cuypers, PhD candidate and researcher in the department of public health and general practice at the HUNT Research Center at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway, led an investigation into whether perception factors into obesity.

For the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT), 1,196 normal weight teenagers aged 13-19 were assessed at baseline and again 11 years later.

Based on their body mass index (BMI), 56 percent of the girls and 49 percent of the boys remained a normal weight 11 years later.

A total of 30 percent of the girls and 41 percent of the boys became overweight and 8 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys became obese.

Of the girls who thought they were overweight, 59 percent of them became overweight, along with 63 percent of the boys.

In the same group, 16 percent of girls and 23 percent of boys became obese.

Of the group who thought they were a normal weight, only 31 percent of girls and 48 percent of boys became overweight according to their BMI.

Results of the study found that normal weight teenagers, who thought they were overweight, had greater weight gain over the 11 years than those who thought they were a normal weight.

Cuypers said, “Perceiving themselves as fat even though they are not may actually cause normal weight children to become obese as adults.”

The data provided by this study does not necessarily give concrete reasoning for weight gain from perceived fatness.

Cuypers and colleagues have hypothesized that the stress of worrying about being overweight and unattractive could cause weight gain.

Another reason for weight gain could come from trying to skip meals or bad dieting techniques that backfire.

Exercise did not appear to play a role in normal weight or obesity outcomes.

Cuypers said, “Girls thus experience more psychosocial stress to achieve the ideal body. Society needs to move away from a focus on weight, and instead needs to emphasize healthy eating habits, such as eating regular and varied meals and eating breakfast.”

“Good sleep habits are also an advantage. And by reducing the amount that teens are transported to and from school and recreational activities, teens might also be able to avoid getting a ‘commuter belly’.”

This study was published in the 2012 issue of the Journal of Obesity. The Norwegian Research Council provided funding for the study, no conflicts of interest were found.

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Review Date: 
August 14, 2012