The course of the obesity epidemic in the United States has been so bad for so many years that even minor victories have been cause for celebration. But despite some bright spots in the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on national rates of obesity (on adults, on youth), there’s little celebrating going on. The reason? Some striking milestones in the rates of obesity in both women and teenagers.
The rate of obesity in US women — which for most of the past decade rested around 35 percent — has now surpassed 40 percent — rising from 35.7 percent in 2005/6 to 40.5 percent in 2013/14, the most recent years for which there are data. And this overall number doesn’t tell the complete picture, as the burden of obesity isn’t shared equally across all groups. The rate of obesity is around 38.2 percent in white women, 46.9 percent in Hispanic women, and 57.2 percent in black women. Asian women have the lowest rate, at around 12.4 percent.
While the numbers in men are concerning as well, they’ve stabilized somewhat over the past decade, bouncing around the mid-30s, with the most recent report finding that 35 percent of men in the United States are obese. As with women, the numbers for men vary by age, with Asians having the lowest rate (12.6%) and blacks the highest (38%).
The new numbers for youth are not quite as striking – but remain concerning as well. They show that over the past 25 years the rate of obesity in adolescents and teenagers has nearly doubled — from 10.5 percent to 20.6 percent — with the overall rate of obesity in youth ages 2 – 19 years old now at 17 percent, up from 10 percent in 1988.
There are, however, two positive trends in younger kids, with rates of obesity dropping since 2004 in 2 – 5 year olds and leveling off since 2008 in 6 – 11 year olds.
The overall picture of obesity in America, however, can be quite discouraging, even for the optimists who tend to work in public health. The epidemic began over two decades ago, and no efforts so far have been able to make real strides in reversing it. And the health, quality of life, and fiscal implications are enormous.
In a recent Viewpoint in the Journal of the American Medical Association, David Ludwig, MD of Harvard Medical School and the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center writes that the latest evidence may support predictions that the obesity epidemic and its health consequences may begin to shorten life expectancy in coming generations. While advances in the treatment of obesity-related chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer have kept mortality rates of these disease relatively stable or on the decline, a new provisional report on death rates suggests that mortality rates may now be increasing for some diseases. The obesity epidemic could be creating more disease, and more serious disease, that advances in treatment can no longer keep up with.
Making progress against the epidemic is going to be essential if we are to help prevent growing rates of disease in the years and decades ahead.
In addition to bolstering research on the causes and prevention of weight gain, we need to support efforts that help people make and maintain healthy food and activity choices. As with the fight against tobacco, this means multi-pronged, multi-layered approaches – such as improved food and activity offerings in schools and workplaces, taxes on unhealthy foods, subsides for healthy foods, widespread communication campaigns, and infrastructure that allows people to easily and safely fit activity into their days. The social, financial, and structural environment that surrounds us is key to making and sustaining healthy behaviors.
Stemming the tied of weight gain in the US will not be easy, but it’s essential that as a society we garner the will to put in place a concerted effort that will benefit current and future generations.