Background: To control the epidemic dimensions of overweight and obesity is an imperative concern for medicine in the 21st century. Youth constitute an interesting group in this perspective because the trajectory of future health is shaped at this life stage. In addition to the well-known somatic diseases related to overweight, the link to mental problems has also been investigated with inconclusive findings. Recent research focuses on correlation between mental health problems and body weight perception, rather than the actual weight. Weight perception is an essential component of body image, and new studies have consequently found that feeling overweight, rather than being overweight, is associated with mental distress. In addition, new research concludes that perceived overweight is correlated with weight gain and may actually cause overweight later in life. This paper explores the correlation between weight perception and mental distress among Norwegian 15 year olds.
Method: This paper uses data from UNGHUBRO, the youth section of the 2001 Oslo population study HUBRO. UNGHUBRO surveyed all 10th grade students in Oslo (n=8316) and enjoyed a 89.2% response rate. Calculations were made with SPSS v.20 using Pearson's chi quadrate tests. Age specific BMI cut off values were used for both reported actual and wanted BMI. Mental distress was measured with HSCL-10. Weight perception was measured with the question "How do you consider your own weight?" with the alternatives "My weight is ok", "I weigh too much", "I don't weigh enough".
Findings: Youth who consider themselves overweight report significantly higher levels of mental distress. There are considerable gender differences. More girls report distorted weight perceptions and mental distress. Over 50% of girls consider themselves overweight despite the actual prevalence of 7%. Actual overweight is more common among boys (14%), but boys are also much more likely to have a correct weight perception. 15% of all girls consider being underweight as an ideal as reported by their wanted BMI, the corresponding among boys is only 1%.
Conclusions: Body perception gives a different perspective on the community health problem that is overweight. From the results of this study, it can be concluded that in addition to being overweight, feeling overweight is also related with health problems. The prevalence of overweight in the youth population is much less than in the adult population, but alarmingly high levels of youth reports a distorted body perception which can be seen as a risk factor for future overweight as shown in other studies. Promoting correct weight perception among youth and thereby a healthy body image is key to controlling overweight as a public health problem, and preventing both somatic and mental health problems in the individual.