Parents of primary schoolchildren will start getting letters next month telling them how fat their children are under Government plans to tackle childhood obesity. But however much they weigh, no child will ever be described as “obese”. … The department [of Health] said that research had shown that the term was a turn-off, so instead it will use the term “very overweight” for those children whose body mass index exceeds 30, in an attempt to enlist parents’ support.
Tam Fry, of the Child Growth Foundation, said that it was “prissy” and “namby-pamby” not to use the right word. … “I find this particular line from the Government tiptoeing through the daffodils,” he said.
Of course, just the other week, David Cameron was saying: “We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise.” And yet here we are, retreating further still from clear talking. Right? Wrong.
A paper in the BMJ last month looked at people’s perceptions of their own weight – not in terms of measured stones or kilos, but whether they class themselves as underweight, about right, somewhat overweight, etc. – and how these have changed in recent years.
In 1999, 43% of the population had a BMI that put them in the overweight or obese range, of whom 81% perceived themselves to be overweight or very overweight. In 2007, 53% of the population had a BMI in the overweight or obese range, of whom only 75% reported themselves to be overweight, very overweight, or obese.
So, as the incidence of overweight and obesity has increased, the proportion of overweight and obese people who recognise themselves as such has declined.
The researchers (from UCL’s Health Behaviour Research Centre) suggest two explanations:
Social comparison is likely to play an important role in the development of societal weight norms, resulting in the threshold for perceived overweight rising in line with increasing weight in the population. …
Another possible explanation relates to the type of images that often accompany media and health information. Photographic illustrations often depict severely obese people, untypical of the overweight population. This might act as false reassurance for those who are “merely” overweight, implicitly reinforcing a perception that messages about healthy eating and exercise are not aimed at them.
The same misperception, we may assume, also prevents many parents from recognising that their children qualify as obese. So giving them hard information could – in some cases – be a useful eye-opener.
But why insist on using the word ‘obese’? The definition of obesity is having a height in metres at least 30 times greater than the square of one’s weight in kilograms – not an immediately meaningful concept. Is there no easier way of communicating that your child is so very overweight that there’s a health risk? Yes: just say that.