The short answer is yes, you can be fat and and not realize that you're fat.
A recent article in the Archives of Internal Medicine used data from the 2000-2002 Dallas Heart Study to describe this phenomenon. The full article (Body Size Misperception: A Novel Determinant in the Obesity Epidemic) is not yet available, but news descriptions of it are here, here and here. The authors have presented the data in powerpoint form here.
Misperception of body size
Researchers asked 2056 obese men and women to look at line drawings like those pictured above. The study participants were asked to choose the figure that looked the most like them. Although all of the participants met criteria for obesity, eight percent of them (14% of blacks, 11% of Hispanics and 2% of whites) did not consider themselves to be obese.
Let's take a moment to define our terms. Study patients did not have the benefit of the BMI values that are printed underneath each series of pictures. I've added those because I suspected that readers would like to take the test themselves and see (1) which figure they would choose and (2) which figure actually corresponds to their body size. (You can click on the pictures to enlarge them, if necessary.) If you don't know your BMI, it can be calculated here.
As obesity grows more common, it also becomes harder to pick out which figures are thin, normal and fat. Here are the definitions according to BMI:
- Underweight = BMI less than 18.5
- Normal weight = 18.5–24.9
- Overweight = 25–29.9
- Obese = BMI of 30 or greater
In the figures above, the only underweight figure is women's drawing 1. The overweight figures are drawings 5 & 6 of both sexes. The obese figures are drawings 7, 8 & 9 of both sexes. (Note that, in this context, "overweight" and "obese" have very specific definitions.)
Back to the Dallas Heart Study. Among the eight percent of obese study participants who misperceived their body size, 66% believed they were at low risk for obesity, even though they were already obese. Although those with and without body size misperception had equal probabilities of developing diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, those with body size misperception were significantly less aware of their risks for these conditions.
In practical terms, this meant that fifty six percent of obese subjects with body size misperception had seen a doctor in the past year. Of those, only 38-45% had discussed diet/habits, exercise or weight loss with their physician. By contrast, among the obese patients with accurate body size perception, 74% had seen a doctor in the past year and 64-68% had discussed such lifestyle issues with their physician. This suggests that obese people who do not realize their condition will get poorer medical care as a result of their misperceptions.
BMI and health risks
Not all causes of mortality can be related to obesity. A 2007 article in JAMA did an extensive analysis of the association of BMI with particular causes of death for the year 2004 in the United States. Researchers found that obesity was not related to increased deaths from cancer, respiratory disease or injuries. However, obesity was associated with increased mortality from cardiovascular disease and from diabetes and kidney disease. When all causes of mortality are considered, the graphs look like this (source article here):
Interestingly, these graphs show that a BMI of about 25 (between normal weight and overweight) seems to be the healthiest for long-term survival, and being underweight is actually unhealthy. However, the graphs do show that as obesity (BMI=30.0 or more) increases, all-cause mortality risk increases. For that reason, it pays to have an accurate idea of our body size, and to be willing to recognize that dealing with obesity could have a beneficial effect on our personal lifespan.