Americans Heavier Than Ever, But Most Still Say Their Weight Is "About Right"

By Douglas Main | November 29, 2011 9:54 am

A Gallup poll reports that on average Americans weigh almost 20 pounds more than they did in 1990, based on the self-reports of more than 1,000 people. The average man weighs 196 pounds while the  average woman is 160 pounds. And most of us—62 percent—are already overweight or obese.

But that doesn’t mean we’re ready to come right out and admit it, at least not to a telephone pollster. When asked how they would describe their own weight, only 39 percent of Americans described themselves as “overweight,” while 56 percent reported their weight was “about right.” Neither of these metrics have changed very much since the poll was first given 21 years ago.

At the same time, 59 percent say they’d like to lose weight [PDF]. At first this seems to contradict the “about right” result, but it can probably be explained by people’s reluctance to describe themselves as “overweight,” even if many admit a desire to be thinner. According to last year’s poll, about 27 percent of Americans are actively trying to lose weight (apparently this question wasn’t asked this year). If we want to stop rising levels of obesity in America, this number will have to increase, and/or we’ll have to start eating healthier. I wouldn’t bet on the latter, however, in a country that counts a slice of pizza as one serving of vegetables. If current trends continue, nearly 80 percent of Americans may be obese or overweight by 2020, according to one recent study.

And as the country gets ever portlier, the idea of what’s normal is changing: if more people are overweight, more people are likely to consider it average, and thus, not necessarily problematic. The average answer to the question, “What do you think is the ideal body weight for you, personally?” has increased 10 pounds since 1990, while average total weight has increased 20 pounds.

[Via the Huffington Post]

Reference: Annual Gallup Healh & Healthcare Poll. Conducted November 3-6, 2011.

Image credit: Tobyotter / Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • dirk

    Well, I’m overweight by 15 pounds. I should lose that weight, but if someone polled me, I’d say my weight was “about right”, with an emphasis on the word “about”.

    That 59% say they should lose weight is a good sign.

  • Cathy

    I’ve said it before, but doctors need to start treatig obesity as a disease in its own right, and not merely an instigator of other diseases. Insurance companies ought to provide copay coverage for weight loss plans that have been proven to work (for example, Weight Watchers) and gym memberships. Frankly, the average American can’t afford to eat healthy or pay for the tools necessary to aid in weight lost, not when their mortgages are under water and they’ve lost their jobs. Unhealthy food is cheap, whereas healthy food is expensive or difficult to access (someone without a car can’t exactly drive down to the local co-op on saturday morning for fresh vegetables, but can probably walk across the street to the convenience store for a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.) We also eat out far too much as a nation, and restaurant food is notoriously full of calories we don’t need.

  • Dan

    I have to disagree with you Cathy. Although the issue of food access remains problematic, unhealthy foods arn’t the only problem. The main issue is how our society accepts or even promotes a sedentary lifestyle. I do not eat healthy at all, but I work out every other day religiously for at least an hour. I have never been overweight because of personal dedication. I dont agree that my insurance premiums should be increased due to lifestyle choices. Although obese individuals are the majority in America, and diabetes/other obesity related illness are costing the medical industry exuberant amounts of money; I think people who live a healthier lifestyle shouldnt have to shoulder any expense.

  • John

    The problem is with the crazy, unrealisitc obesity charts. I’m 6′ 1″ and 205 pounds. That is considered overweight. Yet anyone who would look at me would tell you that I’m very fit. I’m no body builder but have a shaped muscular body. Anyone like me will be considered overweight, while someone who has trouble lifting a feather and trouble walking a mile will be considered ideal weight. The 5’7″ supermodel who weighs 120 pounds and looks like she never eats is considered normal too. Great standard.

  • John

    The 5’8″ supermodel who weighs 125 pounds and looks so unhealthy skinny is considered normal too.

  • Bean Soup

    I’m going to agree with Dan and disagree with Cathy.

    A pair of running shoes costs less than a big screen TV or a game console. You don’t need a gym membership to jog, do situps or pushups.

    An apple, orange or banana costs less per lb than a bag of chips. Healthy food certainly much less than the restaurant food you mention.

    A can of tuna is, what? about 30cents. Wholewheat bread costs no more than whitebread. As with all things- there are cheap healthy alternatives… unless you’re going for organics.

    The protein powder I buy is $14 and lasts me weeks. I make sure I get my veggies too.

    As for the average American not having access to a car (this itself would surprise me- unless you think the average American lives in New York) – even without a car- I suspect the most Americans do live within walking distance of fresh veggies. Problem is- once you get over something minimal like 1000ft most Americans seem to balk at the idea of walking.

    In the country this may not be the case- but for urban residents it is.

    I’m not overweight- for a brief period of my life after getting married I not only became overweight- but on the obese threshold- shocked me- so I got myself back down to where I need to be. Took me 6 months to get from border-line obese to mid-point where I’m supposed to be on the BMI scale.

    It isn’t hard… It isn’t expensive. For most overweight Americans it is a choice to be overweight. Convenience food and a sedentary lifestyle is a choice. Giving them up might not seem worth it to most… but trust me from someone who has- it is definately worth it.

    Some may have medical reasons to be overweight- but most don’t. Chances are- if you are overweight it is by choice.

  • JTWrenn

    All people need to do to lose weight is watch their caloric intake. You get all of these people who are overweight to watch that number, and track it daily with the amount of food they eat, in written form and they can easily find a way to lose weight. I wouldn’t doubt that most of them would lose weight by simple portion control.

    I recently made a diet plan for my girlfriend where we sat down and figure out all of the lunches she could eat from fast food places that would be low calorie. She had something in the range of 30 options just in the chains near her. it is not that hard, nor is it more expensive. This plan was just a backup as it cost far more for her to eat this than it did for her to just make some chicken and rice the nice before and take it to work with her.

    Low calorie food is not that hard to get cheaply. Healthy food…well that is a different matter. I am sure it is hard to get no hormone free range everything at a cheap price, but that is not what makes people fat. Eating everything they want without checking their calories then acting surprised and blaming others is what makes people fat.

  • Cathy

    I suspect that Dan and Bean haven’t seem some of the more extreme end of poverty in the US. It isn’t a question of a cable subscription or a gym membership, it’s a question of a gym membership and having enough bus fare to get to work every day. (You’d be amazed how many people in moderate to large cities do not have cars and rely entirely on public transit.) If your choices for dinner are ramen noodles for 10 cents, or whole wheat spaghetti for three dollars, you’re going to go with the ramen when you only have $30 for food for the week. I don’t know very many very well off people, but those I do know are all quite healthy and thin because they have access (monetarily as well as location-wise) to nutritious food, and/or the time and knowledge to prepare it properly, and if they’re joggers they have safe neighborhoods to jog in (or the aforementioned gym memberships.) Finally, if you’re flipping burgers at McDonalds for a living and they give you a free meal for each shift you work, chances are you’re going to be eating McD’s every day.

    This isn’t to say that obese people are blameless – but the problem is not something that can be blithely waved away with “they aren’t making the right food choices” or “they aren’t getting enough exercise.” After you’ve been standing up for 8 hours like you do at most minimum wage jobs, the last thing you want to do is stand up for another hour while you lift weights. Even a sit-down job can be so mentally draining that people are exhausted after they are done (and while I know and many others know that a good workout after a long day sitting at work feels great, as I’ve said not everyone has access to safe places to exercise.)

    The problem is so deeply rooted in our way of life that it will take decades, or even a generation, to fix it.

  • Dan

    Cathy, I understand that you dont agree with my point, but please dont label me as somebody who has not experienced hardship or understands poverty.

    I live in El Barrio in NYC, and let me tell you, hearing gunshots at 3am on a regular basis is about as poverty stricken as it gets. Your point on working minimum wage jobs, then somehow being unable to excersice, is a perfect example of how important personal dedication to fitness is. I do not belong to a gym, I work out at home with minimal equipment and utilize Central Park. I also have worked manual labor positions in the past (such as landscaping) and even though I might be tired, I still maintain my routine.

    Although you make a good point about the danger levels involved with going outdoors in certain neighborhoods, you certainly cant claim that this danger isnt prevalent in every aspect of a persons life. You are no more likely to be robbed running than you are going to a minimum wage job.

    My main problem with your arguments Cathy is that you consistently shift any amount of personal responsibility to extrinsic factors, when the majority are intrinsic. Nobody is trying to “blithely wave” away obesity as a combination of problems. I am just arguing that the majority of factors are personal decisions, while the minority are external causes.

  • Cathy

    In NYC you at least have Central Park. Many large cities have no similar green space. I will agree that the issues are primarily intrinsic ones, but they are also culturally ingrained. How can you change a culture quickly? The only historical way that happens is via war or invasion, which isn’t a realistic answer (nor one I’d wish on anyone.) Treating the obesity epidemic as a disease that needs to be eradicated is the best way to go about it – with scientific evidence, education, and the total support of the medical community.

  • Kevin N

    In a sad state of affairs, my BMI is exactly in the middle of the recommended range, and I’m constantly told I’m “too skinny”. And I can’t find clothes anymore. I’m 6’1 and wear size “small”. How does that make sense?

    I’m with Bean Soup on the food issue. The dogma that healthy food is expensive is ridiculous. Bananas are 15c apiece. Red cabbage is cheap, oats are cheap, rice, beans, and canned chickpeas are cheap. Besides, the idea that cheap food makes people fat is nonsensical, because you know what is cheaper than 2700 Calories a day of cheap food? 1800 Calories a day of cheap food.

  • Solitha

    Lots of blame flying around, but it’s not really landing in the right places.

    Just like teaching teens abstinence, shaking fingers at those who fall short isn’t the best practice.

    Mother Nature has a couple million years more hold on the human animal than all the willpower in the world. She’s geared us to be especially drawn towards easy calories, and the path of least resistance. (And breeding, if you wondered about me linking teen abstinence in there.)

    If you’re successful fighting off the weight, not of pounds but of evolution, good on ya. Science is only now really learning the what and the why of fitness, poor eating habits, and obesity.

    So before you want to act like you know it all, consider this… even dear old Momma Nature, with her millions of years of experience, hasn’t figured out yet how to gear us for having -too much-.

  • Chris

    Dave and Cathy, you’re both right, except for the part where you disagree with each other. When I moved out from my parents back in August I was 210 lbs, now I’m 178. Still have a bit to go, but a definite improvement. Secrets to how to do this? Don’t drive, I bike everywhere. Not to mention get exercise but save a bunch on car maintenance/gas/insurance. And if I do need a longer trip I can use the bus. Other thing, no soda. I used to have about a can per day. Cut back on the oil and butter. While I still use both I tend to cut back on how much is needed. While I love my mother’s cooking, she goes a little overboard with the butter and oil sometimes. Also do all my cooking at home. Basically prepare dinner on Sunday and eat that for the week. I worked out the math and it’s about $7 of food per day, but it’s probably a little high since I have been stocking up for the winter when I might not be able to get to the store as often.

    Before when I lived in Chicago, I went through Englewood (an extremely poor community) on the bus most of the time. Many times I’d see the kids on their way to school eating a bag of chips. Part might be the parents fault, but also there are “food deserts” where you can’t find a major grocery store nearby unless you drive 5-10 miles. So you are mainly left with much closer convenience store foods or fast food. Apples, bananas, tomatoes are foreign to them.

  • Catherine

    Gym meberships don’t work alot of the times. I had a nieghbor sign up for zumba, once a week. As far as I know you need to workout 3 or 4 times a week to see some results. @Chris, I hear you on cutting out the soda, I quit my 2 can a day habit cause it was giving me a sugar gut & I save money. Now I only drink a beverage with meals & it’s usually a sugar free iced tea. As far as healthy eating gos, well I probobably don’t eat that healthy but I don’t eat alot of any one thing, it’s not going to taste better cause it’s bigger & pay attention to the serving sizes. I don’t like exercising for the most part. (see, can’t even spell it) so I just stick to doing what I like to do, dancing, walking, hiking. I’ve never had a car & save money by walking where I want to go, I had a bike but it was stolen. I must be doing something right cause I’m alot more thin than alot of people I see while walking, I’m 5’9″ & 140 lbs at age 36. I’d rather put in one of my dance dvds in the privacy of my own home, then sign up for a class once a week.(though I did start out with classes) I mix it up with bellydance, Indian dancing, & samba. I spent $50 total on my dvds & at the rate I use them, it’s pennies on the dollar for classes or memberships to gyms.

  • Zachary

    I feel that for me in the younger generation, teens especially, are following along with what we see and we begin to think it’s the norm and go unhealthy as well. I feel I could lose 10 pounds and feel better but I bike everyday I can for about 2 hours. If we Americans stopped wasting so much gas by going down the street on a bike, we would have a less polluted environment as well as healthier people.

  • Minerva

    You don’t need a gym membership to work out…especially if you’ve got extra weight. Your body weight is enough to get a great workout. Walking is free. Don’t have a park? So what. I COMPLETELY agree with the comment Kevin N made about 2700 calories vs. 1800 calories. Eat less (if you over eat). That will SAVE you money. Not so wealthy? There are a LOT of healthier options that you can get…pick veggies over fried foods. Eat smaller portions. Use less salt. Obesity is a disease? Sounds like a cop out to me. There are some instances where it is a result of another health issue, but many Americans do not “suffer” from anything except laziness. Getting off your butt and moving around–Free.

  • Chrysoprace

    They are certainly doing it right here in Japan. My JHS students are nearly all at a gealthy weight, I would guess maybe three percent are overweight and less thn one percent badly so at my school. The children all eat school lunch for about $2.50/day and they get good balanced nutrition with a lot of variety. People eat much less pre-prepared food here and many more fresh vegetables and fruits. They eat a larger variety of protein, less meat than america and more seafood, tofu, nuts and yogurt. Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrition and is in many dishes here. They eat rice as their main starch, unlike potatos in the US wich generally have fat added in the preparation. They drink far less sugar water and more tea and coffee. I am much healthier since I moved here and it is much easier to control my weight. Living here shows me every day that a first world country should be able to maintain a healthy weight and that US culture is to blame for the weight problem.

  • Rahsaan


    I agree with you about BMI being a fallacious measurement. We should measure body composition instead… and that I believe will show how fat and unfit most Americans are. In fact, the rates of obesity would probably prove higher than those shown by BMI measurement. As most Americans have too much fat and not enough lean mass, including all the skinny-fat hipsters here in New York City.

  • Wesley

    The fatness problem is hard. I live in Costa Rica and I think the lifestyle, kind of food and quantity we eat here really helps a lot to stay thin (although the population is getting fatter too). I went to Canada for 3 weeks to visit family and gained 10 pounds! I didn’t feel like I was doing that much different than I do here, but the food and lifestyle are sneaky and make a big difference. After a couple of months back in Costa Rica the weight was gone. People let themselves go and laugh it off, but I wouldn’t be happy with being overweight, it doesn’t look like much fun. Definitely worth the effort to eat right and exercise!!

    PS Sometimes my girlfriend gets upset when I tell her I’d only love her as a friend if she let herself go that way but fitness, health and just looking good is important to me! It’s not that shallow… is it?

  • Professor Timothy Noakes

    Obesity is caused by the consumption of a high carbohydrate diet (with sugar providing more than about 10kg per year) in persons who are genetically unable to metabolize carbohydrate because their muscles and livers are carbohydrate resistant. The solution for those with a BMI above 25 kg/m2 (and who are therefore carbohydrate resistant) is to eat a high fat/high protein/low carbohydrate diet as first established in 1861 but which was written out of the medical/scientific textbooks after 1970 when almost single-handedly Dr Ancel Keys developed the current global desire to remove fat from the diet because it is allegedly unhealthy and causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But when, as a result, Americans began to eat more carbohydrate after the publication of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines, their incidence of obesity and diabetes began to increase exponentially. The evidence for this is provided in Gary Taubes monumental work, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and in his recent more popular 2011 book on the same topic, Why we get fat.

    The excessive consumption of sugar (above 5kg per person per year) and refined carbohydrates probably makes the major contribution of this detrimental carbohydrate effect. To rid the world of obesity, diabetes and heart disease requires that the sale and consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates must be curtailed and the consumption of high fat/high protein/low carbohydrate diets is promoted to those who are at risk because their metabolism is carbohydrate-resistant. In as much as the affected large industries are not going to allow any reduction in the sale of their products, so there is no public health solution to the prevention of the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Instead those industries will continue to insure that the general public remains ignorant about the simple truth of the real factor that causes obesity and diabetes. This ignorance is highlighted by some of the comments posted here.

    But this does not mean that individuals at risk cannot regulate their own weights with consummate ease and hence their risk for the development of obesity. They need just adopt the eating guidelines now promoted by the low-carbohydrate movement led by Dr Dukan’s books in Europe and by many including Gary Taubes in the United States.

  • Anonymous

    John, I am 5’9″, and still slowly growing, yet I usually weigh about 100 pounds. I eat a lot, and do not look like I’m anorexic, or never eat. You have some misconceptions about what a healthy weight is. My BMI of 17 is perfectly fine for a lean body.

  • Iain

    @ wesley

    Yes, that’s shallow and superficial. But you’re allowed to be that way.
    Men hook up with women hoping she’ll never change, women look at men as fixer-uppers. Of course there are always exceptions folks, this is just a more accurate statement than ‘men are from mars and women are from venus’.

  • Chris the Canadian

    It is simple really. Too much carb intake and not enough excersize will cause anyone to be unhealthy and overweight. North American diets are full of sodium, carbohydrates, and sugars. We eat processed foods and pre-packaged junk because: 1. They taste delicious 2. they are easily attainable 3. Most don’t take any time or very little time to prepare 4. a whole generation of people have been raised on this stuff. Parents who don’t pay attention to what they eat and have sedentary lifestyles will pass those bad habits to their kids. Parents who do have more active lifestyles and include their kids in the activities will likely pass THOSE habits down to their kids.

    The biggest concern I see is the youth obesity and overweight rates. It’s not an issue of poverty, it is an issue of convenience and laziness. Growing up I lived in a middle class home in Toronto. I was outside every day after school and had to be dragged in to have dinner at the family table. The meals were rich and not ‘diet conscious’ but we were ACTIVE as kids. Now? Many kids instead of playing soccer or basketball or road hockey after school go home and play video games or surf the ‘net and sit on their butts. Many parents are afraid to let their kids play outside after school, especially in bigger cities, because of the various ills that may befall their kids (Kidnapping, drugs, alcohol etc).

    So even though eating habits are worse than, say, 25 years ago I think the lack of excersize is an even bigger issue regarding the overweight issue in North America. Let’s also not forget that as the entire population as a whole gets heavier the perception of what is ‘average’ changes, causing what was once considered unhealthy to be considered normal. The average waist size for a woman in North America is size 14. SIZE 14!!! So anyone with a size 16 or 18 waist can say they are ‘about right’. Unfortunately that is a falacy as size does not correlate into whether or not someone is healthy for their height. the BMI is the BEST indicator of a persons overall health with regards to weight/muscle mass/fat.

  • Michael

    Professor Timothy Noakes, the solution to solving obesity is not a “one size fits all” solution like you have suggested with a low carb diet. Despite your assumptions that carbs are the sole factor in obesity, having a low carb diet can be hard for those with lifestyles not accommodating to extreme diet changes (the average American living a fast-paced work-centric life)

    Carbs play an important role in a well-balanced diet, as well as fats and proteins. It is important for those conscious of their health to experiment with different macro intakes to find the one that their body responds to the best. While eating a high intake of carbs can be one indicator that someone has a poor diet, a normal and calculated amount of carbs in a diet can be beneficial.

    The problem with carbs is that our bodies are not designed to eat them in mass quantities like we do today. In earlier times, humans flourished on eating meats and eating veggies. Things like bread, fruits and juice were not readily available 365 days of the year. Now we can drop by the grocery store on any corner and get them at our whim, and on that note we can acquire carb dense foods without any work other than jumping into our car and pressing the gas pedal.

    The main point I’m trying to make is simply this: Don’t blame carbs for fat gain. Plenty of healthy individuals consume carbs. The best approach to having a healthy body is having a healthy amount of all macro-nutrients. The best way to know how much you should be eating is to experiment with your own body; everyone is different.


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