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Public Perceptions of Obesity and Its Consequences Don't Match Reality

The Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) noted with interest results from a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll indicating that most Americans are still not aware of many of the serious health consequences associated with being obese. Although seventy percent of people can identify heart disease and diabetes as being associated with obesity, only 15 percent associate obesity and arthritis, 7 percent understand links to cancer and about 5 percent respiratory problems. These poll numbers underscore the need to double-down on efforts to improve people’s understanding of the wide range of ways that obesity affects health.

Many Americans are also unaware of whether their weight or their children’s weight falls into a healthy range; about half of people surveyed think they are healthy weight, and only 12 percent think their child is overweight. This is in stark contrast to government figures that indicate that over two-thirds of adults and one-third of children and teens are overweight or obese.

As BPC’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative detailed in its June 2012 report, Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future, overweight and obesity have sustained, widespread impacts on our families, communities, and institutions. In addition to health consequences, obesity has significant, direct impacts on health care costs, which are the primary driver of our national debt. One important place to change practices: the doctor’s office. Only about half of those surveyed in the AP-NORC poll have discussed the risks of being overweight with a doctor. Improving education for health care professionals when it comes to nutrition and physical activity is one of NPAI’s primary recommendations.

Another recent chapter in the public debate concerns whether obesity shortens lifespan or not. Despite a Journal of the American Medical Association study questioning the link between obesity and length of a person’s life, one thing is clear: being overweight or obese affects the quality of a person’s life, capturing a wide range of negative health impacts, as well as significant cost consequences, for our nation’s families, communities, institutions and public funds.

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