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Perception Matters
I have conversations all the time with folks about different ingredients. At talks and lectures I'm asked about healthy versions of different foods and what I think. As part of the dialogue the joke often comes up that eating healthier foods is great because you can eat more of them. While this gets a laugh every time there's actually great research to show that folks react in just this way.

Don't let the brand fool you
This healthy "halo effect" isn't limited to the description of the food, as you might guess. The food's brand carries an effect, as well. Researchers in the Psychology department at The College of William & Mary have just published a study in the journalĀ Appetite(2014;82:1-7) looking at the interaction between brand perception, calorie information, and the individual's intake of a snack food.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: does it exist?
There's been a fair amount of coverage in the health news on recent research into non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). A study that appeared to confirm the existence of NCGS was refuted by a later study, performed by the same team. Their conclusion was that despite their earlier research, they could find no evidence that non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists.


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People's Perception of Their Own Weight

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Center for Disease Control. It is really a group of long-term studies, and each one surveys a large, representative sample of United States citizens aged 2 months and up. The survey includes a face-to-face interview, a physical exam including calculation of their Body Mass Index, and several laboratory tests.

When we talk about the rise in overweight and obesity in America, it is most often this study that is cited. Data from a stage of this study performed between 1988 and 1994 is compared to data collected between 1999 and 2000 to show that the percentage of Americans who are clinically overweight or obese have risen from 32% overweight and 22.5% obese to 34% overweight and 30.5% obese. But wait - there's more: the survey data collected in 2003 and 2004 show 34% of Americans over 20 years of age are overweight, while 32% are obese.

Clearly, this is bad.

A study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (2008; 5:9 5868-5-9) makes use of other information collected in the NHANES series of surveys: people's perception of themselves as overweight or obese. During the face-to-face interview, the survey subjects were asked if they considered their weight to be underweight, overweight, or just right. (They were also told that their weight would be measured.) The researchers looked at the weight perception responses for all of the people age 20 and over whose height and weight measurements indicated that they fell into the Body Mass Index range of 25.0-29.9 (clinically overweight).

They found that for the earlier stage of NHANES (1988-1994), 68% of people who were overweight correctly identified themselves as overweight. The later stage, 1999-2004, however, had only 62% of people who were overweight correctly identifying themselves as overweight. Six percent fewer people were perceiving their weight status correctly. What's scary, though, is that those men and women between 20 and 34 were much less likely to see themselves as overweight: 13% fewer people between the earlier stage of the study and the later stage.

What this means for you

It's pretty clear that people's perceptions of their own weight are skewed - perhaps because so many more people are overweight now than in the past. But the perception of overweight as "normal" (in the sense of "common") doesn't mean that being overweight is any healthier than it has ever been. Maintaining your Body Mass Index in the normal range (20 - 24.9) is still the single most effective way for you to protect your health. What's your Body Mass Index - and how does it look to you?

First posted: April 23, 2008