Many women mistakenly believe that skipping meals is a good way to lose weight, an international study has found.
The finding from the study of about 600 young women and mothers of school-aged children in New Zealand and overseas suggests the message about the importance of regular meals, especially breakfast, is not getting through, at least to these groups.
"It's very scary," Obesity Action Coalition executive director Celia Murphy said last night.
"That's the very way not to try to lose weight. It absolutely doesn't work."
Research company ACNielsen is conducting a study on attitudes to food and obesity in more than 20 countries and has presented findings to food manufacturers and public health groups, including Obesity Action.
The World Health Organisation declared obesity an epidemic in 2000.
In New Zealand, more than half of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese and the rates are rising. In the late 1990s, 17 per cent of adults were obese, a figure predicted to rise to 29 per cent by 2011.
Obesity is linked to the development of type 2 diabetes, which can put people at risk of heart disease, blindness and limb amputation.
Treating diabetes and its complications costs an estimated $340 million a year and is predicted to rise to $1 billion by 2021.
The Government is deeply concerned about obesity and is trying to encourage people to eat more healthily and be more physically active.
ACNielsen qualitative research director Suzie Dale said the study's main significance was that it showed up the "slightly faulty rules" many people applied to food and obesity.
An interim report on the study says the research arose out of the links between obesity and the rising trend of people buying food at fast-food outlets, restaurants and convenience stores.
"There is a positive correlation between an increase in buying out of home and obesity, although it does not explain the total rise.
"Research shows that the obesity epidemic could be attributed to as little as an additional 150 calories a day in either incoming or outgoing energy. This is a very small amount of food - the equivalent of ... a can of soft drink."
The report says the research participants showed some resistance to the assumption that being overweight was bad.
"What's wrong with people being overweight?" a New Zealand participant asked. "I know a woman that's huge, but she could run circles around me. She could run circles around most athletes.
"What's the difference?"
Ms Murphy questioned the value of the research for New Zealand because it concentrated only on women at two life stages and involved only about 20 New Zealanders.
"It's not at all surprising they found this group of women were more interested in what they look like than their health."
She said the presentation reported the women as saying obesity was about personal responsibility.
"I don't know whether they were asked whether they were influenced by the marketing of food."
Many unhealthy foods were marketed as normal things to eat daily.
"They're not," said Ms Murphy.
The report says fast-food consumption is vulnerable to people's concerns about obesity.
"Some will give them up entirely as they believe this to be an easy-to-implement yet highly effective strategy. Others will reduce frequency of visits or consumption over time."