American adults now weigh an average of 20 pounds more than they did two decades ago, and their view of what they should ideally weigh has also increased, according to Gallup‘s annual Health and Healthcare survey, which questioned 532 men and 480 women who come from 50 US states and the District of Columbia (selected using random-digit-dial sampling). 61.6% of American adults today are overweight, but only 39% say they think they are.

The survey, which relied on self reports, reveals that the average weight for an adult American male is 196 pounds, and 160 pounds for a female – nearly 20 pounds more than in 1990.

Americans say their ideal weight is 181 pounds for men and 138 for women. The way adults of both sexes perceive their ideal weight has also changed over the last twenty years – it has gone up, but less than their actual increase in weight. This means that the gap between what they weigh and what they think they should weigh has widened.

Today, the average adult male is 15 pounds heavier than what he believes his ideal weight should be, compared to 9 pounds twenty years ago, while women weigh 22 pounds more than they think they should, compared to 13 pounds in 1990.

The authors say that when they subtracted men’s and women’s average weight from what they think they should weigh, 64% of males and 68% of females are heavier than their ideal weight.


The figures below show the percentage of Americans who are over, under or at their ideal weight, according to what they believe their ideal weight should be (their weight minus their perceived ideal weight), they were questioned in November 2011:

  • Everybody (both sexes)
    Under 9%, At 18%, Over 67%
  • Adult males
    Under 12%, At 20%, Over 64%
  • Adult females
    Under 5%, At 17%, Over 68%

67% of all American adults in 2011 say they weigh more than they think they should, compared to 62% in 2010.

The researchers gathered data from the Gallup and Healthways Track Americans survey; a database of people BMI (body mass index). They found that:

  • 61.6% of American adults are obese/overweight
  • 25.8% are obese
  • 35.8% are overweight (but not obese)

If a person’s BMI is between 19 and 24.9, they are normal weight. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 means they are overweight. Obese people’s BMI is 30 or more. BMI is a commonly used measurement for working out whether somebody has an ideal or non-ideal bodyweight. It is derived from the individual’s height and weight. BMI can be misleading, because a muscular athlete can have a higher BMI than a couch potato of the same height, but the athlete has a lower body fat content. However, for working out statistics involving thousands of people, BMI is still fairly reliable.

The authors were surprised to find that only 39% of American adults think they have a weight problem, because a higher percentage recognize they weigh more than they think they should. Most people think their weight is “about right”; a similar proportion to twenty years ago.

How American adults responded when asked how they would describe their own personal weight right now:

  • Everybody (both sexes)
    Very/Somewhat overweight 39%, About right 56%, Very/Somewhat underweight 5%
  • Everybody (both sexes)
    Very/Somewhat overweight 35%, About right 60%, Very/Somewhat underweight 5%
  • Everybody (both sexes)
    Very/Somewhat overweight 42%, About right 52%, Very/Somewhat underweight 5%

The researchers suggest that the majority of people are reluctant to describe themselves as overweight, rather than laboring under a false illusion. One quarter of adults are between one to ten pounds over their ideal weight, an amount they consider to be not too bad, so they see themselves as about right, rather than overweight.

In a communiqué, Gallup wrote:

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds obesity has increased significantly over the past 20 years. Gallup’s data reveal that Americans’ self-reports of their own weight have also increased over the same period. Americans’ average ideal weight has increased as well, showing men and women are adapting their ideal to their now higher actual weights.

At the same time, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as overweight has remained essentially unchanged over the past 20 years. While Americans are getting heavier, many may not recognize it or acknowledge it.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist