PRINCETON, NJ -- Two-thirds of Americans report that their actual weight is more than their ideal weight, although for many, the difference between actual and ideal is only 10 pounds or less. But 30% of women and 18% of men say their current weight is more than 20 pounds more than their ideal weight. The average American today weighs 17 pounds above what he or she considers to be ideal, with women reporting a bigger difference between actual and ideal than men.
Clearly, the most accurate way to measure Americans' weight is to put them on a scale and record the results. When asked to give their weight, Americans may misreport for several reasons. Most obviously, overweight individuals may consciously or subconsciously shave off pounds in order to present themselves more positively to those inquiring about their weight. Because Gallup Poll interviews are conducted by phone rather than in person, respondents may be tempted to claim a weight that is lower than their true weight -- even when the interviewer is an anonymous individual whom the respondent will never see or hear from again. Americans may also give an incorrect weight because they don't know their precise weight, so they simply guess based on their recollections of what they weighed at some point in the past.
Nevertheless, with these caveats in mind, it is of interest to examine what Americans say is their current weight and what is their ideal weight, and to look at trends in these measures over time.
Americans are asked each November in the Gallup Poll Social Series Health poll to give their current weight. The most recent results show that the average American man claims to weigh 191 pounds, while the average American woman claims a weight of 159 pounds.
Gallup has been systematically asking this self-reported weight question every November for the past seven years. During that time period, the average reported weight of women has been creeping upward.
For three of the November Gallup Health surveys -- 2001 through 2003 -- women reported weighing an average of 153 pounds. That number rose by a few pounds in the 2004 to 2006 November surveys, and this year it rose still further to 159 pounds, as noted. None of these changes is dramatic, but they do appear to represent a slight upward tilt in women's self-reported weight during this decade.
The pattern for men has not been as consistent, although the average weight of 189 pounds recorded in November 2001 is the lowest of the last seven years.
Gallup first asked this "what is your weight" question in 1990, at which point the self-reported weight for both men and women was significantly lower than has been reported this decade. There may have been differences in the survey context between 1990 and the more recent surveys Gallup has conducted, making it difficult to compare the survey points with precision. Nevertheless, the rather fragmentary data from 1990 suggest the possibility that Americans have gained significant weight over the past decade to decade and a half (or have at least gained in willingness to admit a higher personal weight).
The Gallup Health poll also asks respondents -- at a point in the survey after they have given their actual weight -- to name what they consider to be their "ideal" weight.
These results have been remarkably stable over the last seven years. Women appear to be fixed on a "weight point" of between 134 and 138 pounds as ideal, while men appear to believe that a weight between 177 and 181 pounds is ideal. It is interesting to note that the ideal weight in the 1990 poll for both men and women was lower than what has been measured in the more recent polls.
A comparison of the actual and ideal weights of each respondent in the November 2007 poll confirms the obvious: The majority of Americans acknowledge that they should ideally weigh less than they currently weigh.
For 71% of women and 63% of men, their actual weight is more than their ideal weight. Much less frequently -- at the other end of the scale -- 9% of women and 11% of men say their actual weight is less than their ideal weight. Only 14% of women and 20% of men consider their current weight to be exactly ideal.
Still, for many whose actual weight is more than their perceived ideal weight, the difference between actual and ideal is small -- 10 pounds or less, presumably nothing that suggests morbid obesity or a life-consuming problem for the respondents.
But for 30% of women and 18% of men, the actual versus ideal weight difference is more than 20 pounds. And 12% of women and 5% of men report that they ideally should weigh more than 50 pounds less than they current weigh -- the type of excess weight that suggests a more significant problem of obesity.
Other data collected in Gallup's annual Health poll (to be discussed in a separate report) show that while only 41% of American adults consider themselves to be "overweight" when asked to place themselves in a category (overweight, about right, underweight), a significantly higher 60% of Americans say they would like to lose weight. The data analyzed in this report provide an explanation for this seeming discrepancy. While the substantial majority of Americans say their weight is higher than ideal, for many the difference between actual and ideal weight is only a few pounds. This suggests that although a number of Americans report wanting to lose weight, the amount of weight they would like to lose is not substantial enough to make them think they are "overweight."
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 11-14, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.