Photo credit: New Jersey Office of the Governor

Am I overweight? Are you? Who can tell? Researchers at the University of Liverpool say most of us -- even healthcare professionals -- are unable to visually identify whether a person is a healthy weight, overweight or obese.

The researchers asked participants to look at photographs of male models and categorize whether they were a healthy weight, overweight or obese according to World Health Organization (WHO) Body Mass Index (BMI) guidelines.

The majority flunked. They underestimated weight, often believing that overweight men were a healthy weight. 

In a related study of healthcare professionals, the researchers also found that general practitioners and trainee GPs were unable to visually identify if a person was overweight or obese.

The researchers also examined whether increased exposure to overweight and obese people affected a person's ability to estimate the weight of a person. Their findings suggested that exposure to heavier body weights may influence what people see as a normal and healthy weight and causes people to underestimate a person's weight.

Tendency to underestimate

"We wanted to find out if people can identify a healthy, overweight or obese person just by looking at them," said Dr. Eric Robinson, who conducted the research. Primarily we found that people were often very inaccurate and this included trainee doctors and qualified doctors too. Moreover, we found that participants systematically underestimated when a person was overweight or obese."

"Our study of GPs also found a tendency to underestimate weight which has important implications as it means that overweight and obese patients could end up not being offered weight management support or advice," he said.

Recent studies have found that parents underestimate their overweight or obese child's weight and this could also act as a barrier to intervention.

The research was presented at the UK Congress of Obesity and the study of GPs is published in the British Journal of General Practice.

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