Public perceptions of obesity in Europe

Summary of the overall survey findings

(For references please refer to the full report)

Many people misjudge their own weight, believing they are in a lower weight category than they are. One in five people who would describe themselves as a normal or healthy weight are technically overweight, and a third of people who describe themselves as overweight are in fact obese.* In Denmark, Finland and Germany nearly half of people who thought they were overweight are in reality classified as obese.

When it comes to differentiating between those that are overweight and those who are obese, there was an even greater lack of distinction. Many people overestimated the number of those who are obese but underestimated the numbers who are overweight. This suggests that being overweight is perceptually becoming a norm.

Although there is growing medical recognition of obesity as a disease with genetic and psychological elements, this is not reflected in public opinion.

Low level of understanding

While there is a high level of awareness about the impact of diet and exercise in developing obesity, the role of other lifestyle and medical factors is less widely understood.

The major cause of obesity is consuming more calories than you burn off, and most people correctly identified poor diet (94%) and lack of physical activity (89%) as being major causes of obesity.

However, hormone problems, certain medicines, depression and emotional factors, quitting smoking, stress, and lack of sleep can all contribute to becoming overweight or obese. Awareness of these factors is lower; with less than a quarter of people recognising that lack of sleep can be a contributing factor and just under half that stress plays a role.

Despite believing that obesity can significantly shorten your life, relatively few people recognised that obesity can be as dangerous as smoking.

The effects that were relatively well known were heart disease (77%), diabetes (76%), and high blood pressure (74%). But there was little awareness of others, particularly stroke (47%) and cancer (16%). Obesity’s toll on mental health is also not widely recognised. Only just over half of people questioned (55%) thought obesity would result in an increased risk of depression.

Treating obesity

Most people agree that exercise (88%) and diet control (85%) are appropriate treatments for obesity. However, studies have shown that weight loss through lifestyle change is often not enough to prevent associated health risks like cancer, and that people struggle to keep weight off as low-calorie diets can trigger biological mechanisms designed to prevent starvation.

In most countries there was a high recognition that surgery is an effective treatment for obesity. 58% of respondents indicated that they would be likely to consider surgical intervention if they were to develop diabetes and they knew it would cure it.

Research has shown that nine out of ten people with diabetes who have obesity surgery no longer need often-costly medication two years later. However, few respondents recognised the value of this to health systems. Only 41% of them thought the cost of surgery should be borne by national health services.

This survey provides some fascinating insights into people’s perceptions. It also shows there are some significant differences in perceptions in different countries (please see full report).

For more information please see:

For country results please see:

* Respondents were asked whether they would describe themselves as underweight, a normal or healthy weight, overweight or obese. The reported weight category was compared with their BMI, calculated using the information they provided about their height and weight.