Just over one third of people in the USA are of normal weight, while 35.8% are overweight and 27.6% are obese, according to a Gallup Poll published on Friday. While in most countries these would be alarming figures, the pollsters see them as a promising sign – for the first time in three years the number of normal weight people is higher than the figure for people who are overweight (not including obese).

The surveyors telephoned 90,070 adults from July 1st to September 30th, and a similar number from April 1st to June 30th. The adults were selected randomly. Gallup says their overall margin of error is plus or minus 1%. There is also a possible 3.5% margin of error among the subgroups.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been monitoring bodyweight trends in the USA since 2008, reports that these new findings could be showing a change in American attitudes to bodyweight.

With 61.6% of the country’s population needing to shed pounds, there is still a huge market for the fat-busting industry, the authors added.

Bodyweight has become a leading health and social issue in America. First Lady Michelle Obama has been vigorously promoting a healthier diet to combat childhood obesity. Gallup pointed to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie whose weight became the target of TV comedians, overshadowing his presidential plans.

The Danish government has introduced a tax on saturated fats and foods with saturated fats, while other European nations are looking into imposing similar measures in their fight against obesity – the ultimate aim being to bring down healthcare costs.

The authors of this latest Gallup report say that although their findings are promising, nobody knows whether they represent the beginning of a trend or just a blip.

As the people interviewed in this poll self-reported their body weight, rather than being weighed by the researchers, it is not possible to be sure about how reliable the results are.

In this survey respondents said what their height and weight were. The researchers then calculated their body mass index (BMI):

  • BMI between 18 and less than 25 = Normal weight.
  • BMI between 25 and less than 30 = Overweight
  • BMI of 30 or more = Obese

Those more likely to be overweight include middle-aged individuals, people with low incomes, and African-Americans.

The largest drop in obesity rates were seen among those whose annual incomes ranged from $36,000 to $89,999 – a fall of a full percentage point since 2008. While Asians gained 3.3% (largest gain).

The authors say public awareness regarding obesity and its health consequences might be impacting people’s attitudes towards food. They also mentioned government and business investment in trying to change people’s health habits. However, they added that for the moment the reasons for the recent drop in the overweight rate is not clear.

The financial crisis may have resulted in people eating out less, which may also have brought overweight rates down.

Whatever the reason, any downward trend in overweight rates can have a considerable impact on healthcare costs.

Written by Christian Nordqvist