The Obesity Rate In The U.S. Is Leveling Off — But It’s Still At Epidemic Levels

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Just over 35 percent of American adults were obese between 2011 and 2012, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) annual National Health and Nutrition Examination survey. The findings reinforce a nearly ten-year trend during which U.S. adult obesity rates have hovered steadily in the 32 to 35 percent range — a welcome departure from decades of skyrocketing obesity, but still high enough to qualify as an epidemic that threatens Americans’ health and national medical expenditure.

During the 1960s and 1970s, between 10 and 12 percent of U.S. adults were obese. But that number doubled between 1980 and the mid-90s and continued to rise before leveling off around 2004. If the current trend continues, researchers estimate that between 42 percent and 50 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030. That means the next two decades will give rise to 6 million new cases of diabetes, 5 million cases of chronic heart disease and stroke, 400,000 new cancer diagnoses, and $48 billion in increased health care spending every year for the next 20 years:

There are several theories as to why obesity rates exploded in the late 20th century, many centering on Americans’ evolving (and increasingly unhealthy) diets. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) compared the major sources of food energy in 1909 and 2000. The analysis concluded that Americans have been turning to fats, oils, and sugar in alarming numbers. Fat and oil consumption rose by a staggering 83 percent over the century, while sugar and sweetener consumption rose by over 58 percent:

sources of food energy usda

CREDIT: United States Department of Agriculture

Much of that is attributable to the food industry’s rampant overuse of salt, sugar, and fat in its products, particularly pre-processed and packaged foods. Unfortunately, Americans who may want to seek out healthier options often lack the appropriate nutritional resources. Many poor communities live in regions without easy access to supermarkets and fresh, healthy produce — not to mention many who live in these regions can’t get affordable preventative health care or nutritional advice from doctors. That helps explain why the new CDC data finds that Hispanic Americans and black Americans suffer from considerably higher rates of obesity than white Americans.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been positive developments when it comes to obesity in recent months. To the contrary, there has been a trickle of encouraging data showing that parents are getting serious about having their kids live healthy lifestyles and that aggressive nutritional programs targeted towards children are having their intended effect. The obesity rate for low-income children dropped significantly for the first time ever between 2008 and 2011 — a trend that is expected to continue as the USDA enforces stricter public school lunch standards next year that limit how much fat, salt, and sugar can be in cafeteria lunches and vending machine snacks.

If those nutritional programs continue to be sucessful, it could translate to big health care savings. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that just a five percent reduction in the national Body Mass Index — equivalent to a six-foot tall person who weighs 200 pounds losing 10 pounds — would save every U.S. state between 6.5 percent and 7.9 percent in health care costs.