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Body image and weight control in young adults: international comparisons in university students from 22 countries



Young women in the United States and Western Europe are notoriously concerned about weight but less is known about attitudes to weight in other regions of the world. This study explores the associations between body mass index (BMI), weight perceptions, and attempts to lose weight in male and female university students from 22 countries.


Data were collected from 18 512 university students, using standardised methods, as part of the International Health Behaviour Survey. Measures included weight, height, perception of overweight, and weight loss status. BMI was calculated from weight and height, but was categorised into gender and country-standardised deciles rather than the conventional weight categories in response to the inaccuracy of self-reports. Perceived overweight and weight loss status were plotted against country-standardised BMI deciles. The 22 countries were grouped into five geopolitical/economic areas for regional analyses: North-Western Europe and the USA, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Pacific Asia, South America. Perceived overweight compared across the five regions.


Perceived overweight increased systematically across BMI deciles in all countries. More women than men felt overweight at any decile. Women had low levels of perceived overweight in the lowest decile but rates rapidly increased to 50% by the 5th decile. Men, even in the highest deciles, were less aware that they are overweight and few of them were trying to lose weight. Women had a faster rise of weight loss attempts over the BMI deciles but nevertheless the proportion trying to lose in the highest decile did not exceed 75%. Perceived overweight profiles across BMI deciles were similar across all regions, suggesting that perceptions of overweight derive from local comparisons. The patterning for trying to lose weight was more diverse, with men and women from Asian countries showing higher levels of trying to lose weight at all deciles.


This study shows the international consistency in perceptions of overweight in educated young men and women across diverse regions of the world. It confirms the patterning of women's overestimation of weight at lower BMI deciles and men's underestimation of weight at the higher deciles. Perceptions of overweight and attempts to lose weight were highest in the group of Asian countries where body weights are generally low, suggesting that local culture and norms could moderate attitudes to weight.

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This research was supported by Cancer Research UK and the Economic and Social Research Council.

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Correspondence to J Wardle.

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Wardle, J., Haase, A. & Steptoe, A. Body image and weight control in young adults: international comparisons in university students from 22 countries. Int J Obes 30, 644–651 (2006).

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  • perceived overweight
  • weight loss
  • epidemiology

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