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Women and Obesity: How Far Have We Come?

HealthyWomen in the News

New survey reveals that women don’t understand some of the health consequences associated with obesity or the support options available

Red Bank, NJ – With more than 60 percent of women in the United States classified as overweight and one-third of those women being obese, a new survey from HealthyWomen (HW) sheds light on women’s understanding of obesity and the options available to regain their health. The survey found that while women are knowledgeable about the heart health impact of obesity, they don’t understand other serious health consequences, namely cancer. When asked about the secondary health conditions associated with obesity, only 49 percent recognized the link between obesity and breast cancer, and 29 percent knew about the link between obesity and uterine cancer.

This lack of knowledge extended to weight-loss strategies as well. When women were asked about obesity-prevention actions available to them, more than half of the respondents (52%) did not know if their health insurance offered support. Only 10 percent believed their plans covered bariatric surgery, and only 6 percent thought their plans included prescription drug reimbursement. While plans vary, many do provide support for a range of weight-loss interventions.

"We were reassured to find that women understand some of the health consequences associated with obesity," said Beth Battaglino Cahill, RN, executive director of HealthyWomen. "However, the survey does show several gaps in knowledge, which tells us more needs to be done to offer support and access to tools that will help them lead a healthier lifestyle."

The online survey of nearly 1,500 women was designed to assess their understanding and knowledge of obesity and related health consequences. It also included a self-assessment of their current weight status and their strategies for losing weight. More than three-quarters of respondents identified themselves as either overweight (47%) or obese (25%). Overweight is defined by medical experts as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 25, while obesity is associated with a BMI greater than 30.

Asked how much weight they would need to lose to significantly reduce health risks associated with being overweight or obese, 30 percent of respondents said a 10 percent reduction was needed, followed by 28 percent who said a 5 percent reduction was needed. This is evidence that respondents understand that a modest amount of weight loss—5 to 10 percent of body weight—can produce health benefits, such as improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugars.

When it came to employing a weight-loss strategy, the largest group—41 percent of women— stated that starting or increasing exercise was the one weight-loss strategy that was most effective for them, with 51 percent of respondents engaging in three to seven hours of physical activity a week. Managing caloric intake ranked second in popularity, favored by 25 percent of respondents. Additionally, when asked if a prescription weight-loss option were available as part of a long-term weight-loss plan, more than half of the women said they would be somewhat or very likely to try it (31% and 29%, respectively).

To support women with their weight-loss goals, HealthyWomen provides an array of resources that can help women tackle their toughest weight-loss issues at This month HealthyWomen will launch its new Online Community, providing women a venue to connect with medical experts on a variety of health topics, including weight loss, fitness and nutrition, as well as to share success stories and get support from other women just like them.

Other Survey Highlights

  • When asked what they thought were the primary reasons people become obese, behavioral factors were the most commonly cited, namely a lack of physical exercise (93%) and oversized food portions (89%). Other behavioral factors most commonly cited included:
    • Not eating enough fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods (61%)
    • Eating more frequently than necessary (54%)
    • Lack of education about healthy eating and/or exercise (46%)
    • Lack of time to prepare meals (45%)
  • Other factors included: genetics (46%) and environment, namely not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables (31%).
  • When describing previous weight-loss efforts, starting or increasing exercise and restricting calories were the most popular strategies employed (84% and 83% respectively). Other methods included:
    • Group support, such as Weight Watchers,, etc. (43%)
    • Over-the-counter dietary supplements (28%)
    • Prescription weight-loss medication (14%)
    • One-on-one support, such as Jenny Craig, nutritionist, trainer, etc. (13%)
    • Prepackaged menu plan (11%)

About HealthyWomen
HealthyWomen (HW) is the nation's leading nonprofit health information source for women. For more than 20 years, women have been coming to HW for answers to their most pressing and personal health care questions. HW provides health information through a wide array of online content and print publications that are original, objective and reviewed and approved by medical experts. Its website,®, was recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the "Top 100 Websites for Women" in 2010 and 2011 and was named the top women’s health website by Dr. Mehmet Oz in O, The Oprah Magazine. To learn more, visit

Erin Graves, HealthyWomen

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