It's pretty clear that we, as a country, are more overweight than we used to be, but exactly how bad is the problem? Are we in the midst of an unchecked obesity epidemic that is going to cause us to burst at our seams? Or is this whole thing overblown? Luckily, we have some new, high-quality data from the CDC to shed a little bit of light into what's been going on. The data, which comes from 2009-2010 installment of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, shows that obesity, after soaring in the 1980s and 1990s, has finally hit something of a plateau.
There has been no significant increase in overall adult obesity between 2008 and 2010, when the data was last analyzed. When you look at the larger picture over the last decade, there have been increases in obesity among certain groups — however, the general percentage of Americans who are obese has remained at about 35 percent, a number that has been holding steady since 2003. Still, that means one in three Americans is obese.
The main increase in obesity since 2000 has been seen among men. At the start of the decade, 27.5 percent of men were obese, and by 2010, that number was up to 35.5 percent. The obesity rate for women did not change significantly during that same time period. Obesity here is defined by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and, if you count overweight people as well, the picture changes significantly: A whopping 69 percent of adults were either overweight or obese in 2010. In 2000, that number was 64.5 percent.
There's a similar situation when you look at the numbers for children. In 2010, 16.9 percent of kids and teens (ages 2 to 19) were obese. That's up from 13.9 percent in 2000, and the rise here is also attributed to an increase among boys. When you include overweight children along with the obese, the percent of kids in the category jumps to 31.8.
This relatively steady state seems like good news—we're not really getting any fatter! There aren't any definitive answers as to why this leveling off has occurred, but there are a few possibilities. Penny Gordon-Larsen is an obesity researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who told NPR she thinks all the attention we've been paying to the problem has made a difference:
We've seen some very effective changes that are occurring in schools and at the societal level in terms of food labeling, economic incentives, behavioral strategies.
Another hypothesis is that we've hit the limit of how obese we can reasonably get. As Harvard's David Ludwig, who treats overweight children, explained to NPR,
Obesity prevalence can't keep going up year after year indefinitely. Ultimately we'll reach a state where those individuals who are susceptible to becoming obese for genetic reasons have already developed obesity.
Either way, while it's good that the number of obese people has stabilized, it doesn't mean we're exactly in the clear, in terms of its impact on our society. As Ludwig puts it, "We may have peaked, but we've peaked at levels that have never before occurred for humans."
So now that we're in this virgin territory, what can we expect? Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, told USA Today, "These rates will continue to confer significant medical, psychosocial and economic consequences for our country." According to the new data, there are currently around 78 million obese adults in this country; so any consequences—health or otherwise—associated with obesity stand to have a big impact on our country as a whole.
Whether we need to freak out over an "obesity epidemic" still seems to be up in the air, but the answer, regardless, is not for us all to go on crash diets—thank God! Taking rash steps to slim down could make things even more complicated. Glenn Gaesser, of Arizona State University, put it this way:
Most people who lose weight will ultimately regain it. If you do this do over and over and over again you develop a nation of weight-cyclers, a yo-yo-dieting society and there are risks associated with yo-yo dieting that are every bit as hazardous as the risks associated with just being fat.
So for the moment it seems like we should just keep doing what we're doing—until some expert or government agency comes along to inform us that we must eat only organic kale and purified water if we want to have any hope of surviving as a nation.
Obesity Epidemic May Have Peaked In U.S. [NPR]
Obesity rate inches up for males, but levels off overall [USA Today]
Prevalence of obesity in US still high, with little change in recent years [EurekAlert!]
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