Overweight but unseen: a review of the underestimation of weight status and a visual normalization theory

Although overweight and obesity are widespread across most of the developed world, a considerable body of research has now accumulated, which suggests that adiposity often goes undetected. A substantial proportion of individuals with overweight or obesity do not identify they are overweight, and large numbers of parents of children with overweight or obesity fail to identify their child as being overweight. Lay people and medical practitioners are also now poor at identifying overweight and obesity in others. A visual normalization theory of the under-detection of overweight and obesity is proposed. This theory is based on the notion that weight status is judged relative to visual body size norms. Because larger body sizes are now common, this has caused a recalibration to the range of body sizes that are perceived as being ‘normal’ and increased the visual threshold for what constitutes ‘overweight’. Evidence is reviewed that indicates this process has played a significant role in the under-detection of overweight and obesity. The public health relevance of the under-detection of overweight and obesity is also discussed.