According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 one third of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese. That’s not surprising in a world where Bisnuts and 45-lb burgers are king.

But there’s an even bigger problem, if you can believe it: According to a new CDC study, one third of those overweight kids don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about their weight. Here are the worrying numbers:

Approximately 81% of overweight boys and 71% of overweight girls believe they are about the right weight. Nearly 48% of obese boys and 36% of obese girls consider themselves to be about the right weight.

The study also states that you’re more likely to maintain a healthy weight if you have an accurate perception of your size, which means these at-risk kids are less likely than normal to lose those excess pounds. But it falls short of drawing any conclusions as to why there’s such a high instance of misperception. A New England pediatrician, who writes for The Daily Beast under the pen name Russell Saunders, has a few ideas on what could be behind the trend.

Photo: Flickr/ Gaulsstin

Photo: Flickr/ Gaulsstin

Saunders posits that one of the main reasons fat kids don’t think they’re fat, is because so many of their peers look the same as they do. When being overweight or obese is relatively common, it becomes normalized and seemingly less problematic. To support this stance, Saunders points to parallels between higher obesity levels as well as greater weight misperception among non-white youth.

As a result of this normalization, Saunders reasons that these children and teens will only realize they’re at an unhealthy weight if someone—like a pediatrician—tells them so. And he suspects that unfortunately these conversations aren’t happening as much as they should, because they’re just so hard.

I absolutely hate talking to patients about being overweight… Trying to tell little girls and boys that their weight is too high without making them feel bad about themselves or their appearance is a daunting task.

While it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this apparent failing on the part of medical professionals, it’s worth remembering that they’re toeing a fine line. The CDC study also found that weight misperception works both ways: More than 2 million kids in a healthy weight range considered themselves to be too thin or too fat. And the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that more than half of all teenage girls and nearly a third of all teenage boys use unhealthy behaviors to control their weight, like skipping meals, vomiting or taking laxatives.

Photo: Flickr/ Gaulsstin

Photo: Flickr/ Gaulsstin

Health professionals, teachers and parents are caught between sky rocketing youth obesity rates (which have doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years) and dangerous body image problems among young people (95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25). But that’s exactly what makes this such an urgent issue. Between popular media and a kid’s real-life peers, there are fewer and fewer observable models of a sound, hale weight. How are these young people supposed to be healthy, when they don’t even know what a healthy body looks like?

[via The Daily Beast]