May 12, 2009

Poll Reveals Body Image Differs From Health

A new poll reveals that there's a major disconnect between body image and true physical condition. Many women who say they are dieting are avoiding healthy fruits and veggies.

The Associated Press-iVillage poll suggests many women also think they're fat when they're not.

"The priorities are flipped," says Dr. Molly Poag, chief of psychiatry at New York's Lennox Hill Hospital.

She said in a perfect world female athletes are much better role models than supermodels: "There's an undervaluing of physical fitness and an overvaluing of absolute weight and appearance for women in our culture."

The AP-iVillage poll of 1,000 adult women showed surprising findings on women's attitudes and actions.

Half of the women polled said they don't like their weight even if their body mass index was in the normal range. But only a third said they don't like their physical condition.

The poll found women put in a median of 80 minutes of exercise a week, meaning half do even less. Health experts recommend that the average adult should get 2 1/2 hours of exercise a week for good health.

A staggering 28 percent of women admit they get the recommended serving of five fruits and vegetables a day once a week or less.

"I was a fanatic about exercise when I was younger, and I quit focusing on that when I had kids," says Laura Comer, 45, of Sugar Land, Texas, a mother of two.

But Comer says she recently lost her job as a hospital system vice president and is using the new free time to add more activity.

Meanwhile, computer programmer Vesna Stemwell, 51, of Delano, Minn., has a sedentary job with lots of overtime and a 45-minute commute.

She lost five pounds because of giving up meat and dairy products for a religious observance. She wants to become a vegetarian, but her husband doesn't support the idea.

"Changing the diet," Stemwell said, "affects everybody in the house and it's hard to have something different."

The survey found a quarter of the women would consider plastic surgery to feel more beautiful, and the most popular choice was a tummy tuck.

"There isn't any quick fix," says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, who directs the women's heart program at the New York University Langone Medical Center.

A tummy tuck is cosmetic and far from more radical surgeries like stomach stapling that are reserved to help the health of the very obese.

"People can't see the damage that's being done inside their body," says Goldberg. "If you increase your fitness but don't lose as much weight, you still have a lower heart disease risk than someone who is obese and sedentary."

The poll also found 16 percent of normal-weight women are dieting to drop pounds.

Most extreme are eating disorders like the anorexia that has tormented Daleen Johnson of Oceanside, Calif., for years. Her kids helped the 5-foot-9 Johnson to put on 20 pounds in the past year.

"My 8-year-old came up to me and was like, 'Mom, why don't my hip bones stick out like yours?'" said Johnson, 28. "I could put my selfishness aside so that she didn't think being skinny is what matters."

It's still a struggle Johnson says, "Summer's coming and I'm panicking because I don't think that I'm good enough. I don't look like the supermodel on TV."

University of Houston sociologist Samantha Kwan, who studies gender and body image, warns normal-skinny doesn't automatically mean healthy.

"Someone who is fat or even overweight can be healthy if they have a balanced diet and are physically active," Kwan says. "Our culture really does put a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way," taking precedence over health measures.

The AP-iVillage poll was conducted April 20-30 by Knowledge Networks, which contacted survey participants using traditional telephone and mail polling methods but then intensively questioned them online, providing Internet access for those who needed it.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.