Intended for healthcare professionals


Changing perceptions of weight in Great Britain: comparison of two population surveys

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 10 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a494
  1. F Johnson, research fellow,
  2. L Cooke, senior research associate,
  3. H Croker, clinical research dietician,
  4. Jane Wardle, director of health behaviour research centre
  1. 1Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London WC1E 6BT
  1. Correspondence to: J Wardle j.wardle{at}
  • Accepted 13 May 2008


Objectives To examine changes in public perceptions of overweight in Great Britain over an eight year period.

Design Comparison of data on self perceived weight from population surveys in 1999 and 2007.

Setting Household surveys of two representative samples in Great Britain.

Participants 853 men and 944 women in 1999, and 847 men and 989 women in 2007.

Main outcome measures Participants were asked to report their weight and height and classify their body size on a scale from “very underweight” to “obese.”

Results Self reported weights increased dramatically over time, but the weight at which people perceived themselves to be overweight also rose significantly. In 1999, 81% of overweight participants correctly identified themselves as overweight compared with 75% in 2007, demonstrating a decrease in sensitivity in the self diagnosis of overweight.

Conclusions Despite media and health campaigns aiming to raise awareness of healthy weight, increasing numbers of overweight people fail to recognise that their weight is a cause for concern. This makes it less likely that they will see calls for weight control as personally relevant.


  • Data collection was carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB).

  • Contributors: JW was the lead researcher and conceived the project. She led the study design and development of materials in both 1999 and 2007 and participated in data analysis and interpretation for both surveys. She made a substantial contribution to content of the paper and is guarantor. FJ participated in the study design and development of materials for the 1999 survey, carried out statistical analyses of data from both surveys, and drafted the paper. LC designed materials and liaised with the data collection bodies in 2007. She also made revisions to the paper. HC was involved in the development of survey materials in 2007 and made revisions to the paper. All authors approved the final version of the paper for publication.

  • Funding: Cancer Research UK and the Economic and Social Research Council.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethical approval: Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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