Weight fibs distorting reported obesity rates

Under-reporting of weight is a growing problem for obesity researchers. puuikibeach/Flickr

People are increasingly reporting their weight as lower than it is, skewing data on obesity rates, according to a new Irish study.

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, found the gap in obesity levels between people self-reporting their body mass index (BMI) and having it measured is getting larger, making it seem as if obesity rates are getting lower.

Researchers already knew that people typically reported their weight as lower than their actual weight. People also self-report their height to be significantly higher than their measured height.

“We have known of the underestimation of weight and overestimation of height for some time. This research suggests that over time the problem has become more severe,” said Joseph Proietto, Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

“It would suggest that any surveys that rely on self-reported height and weight will underestimate true obesity prevalence unless adjusted.”

The researchers sought to establish if self-reported height bias or weight bias, or both, was responsible for the declining sensitivity in the obese category between self-reported and clinically measured BMI.

They found self-reported height bias had remained stable over time regardless of gender or age, but self-reported weight bias had increased over time for both genders and in all age groups, particularly for obese people.

“This latest research supports the notion that as the population continues to gain weight, under-reporting becomes more of an issue,” said Tim Crowe, Associate Professor in nutrition at Deakin University.

“The same finding is also seen in under-reporting of types of foods eaten, especially foods high in fat and sugar, and the serving sizes of meals,” Professor Crowe said.

The research authors said the results must be cautiously interpreted, as the study numbers used in two of the sample groups included less than 200 people.

Professor Crowe added that BMI itself was far from perfect, with waist circumference a more useful measure of overall health risks.

“Waist circumference specifically targets the most dangerous type of fat – visceral fat.

"Measures above 102 cm for men and 88 cm for women carry a very high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer,” Professor Crowe said.

Professor Proietto said there were several more accurate measurements of fatty tissue than BMI, such as underwater weighing, DEXA scanning, and Bod Pod assessment, however none were feasible in large population studies.

“BMI is simple and cheap and useful, provided one is aware of its limitations.”