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Analysis

US Obesity Rates Reach Historic Highs

By John Commins  
   September 12, 2019

Report calls for sugary drink taxes, expanded nutrition programs and encourages physical activity to address this health crisis.

Americans have never been fatter.

That's according to a new report from the Trust For America's Health, which found that one-in-three Americans of all ages–about 100 million people–are obese, a historic high.

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and its own in-house analysis, TFAH issues a biannual snapshot of obesity rates nationwide.

"These latest data shout that our national obesity crisis is getting worse," TFAH CEO and President John Auerbach said in comments accompanying the study.

"They tell us that almost 50 years into the upward curve of obesity rates we haven't yet found the right mix of programs to stop the epidemic," he said. "Isolated programs and calls for life-style changes aren't enough. Instead, our report highlights the fundamental changes that are needed in the social and economic conditions that make it challenging for people to eat healthy foods and get sufficient exercise."

The consequences of soaring obesity rates include increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancers, with an annual cost of about $149 million, half of which is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, TFAH said.

Nine states had adult obesity rates at or above 35% in 2018, up from seven states at that level in 2017, an historic level of obesity. The nine states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Mississippi and West Virginia have the highest level of adult obesity in the nation at 39.5%, while Colorado has the lowest rate at 23%, TFAH said.

The pace of obesity appears to be accelerating. As recently as 2012, TFAH notes, no state had an adult obesity rate over 35% and from 2013 through 2018 33 states had statistically significant increases in their rates of adult obesity, TFAH said.

A second data source used in the report, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, also shows all-time high levels of obesity. In 2015-2016, the most recent available data, the national adult obesity rate was 39.6% and the national child obesity rate was 18.5%.

Nationwide, obesity has increased by 70% over the last 30 years for adults and by 85% for children.

As with other studies, the TFAH report shows the close link between obesity and socio-economic conditions. Lower-income people, and people of color, who are more likely to live in "food deserts" and neighborhoods that discourage physical activity, and who are the target of junk food marketers, are also at elevated risk.

As of 2015-2016, 47% of Latino adults, 46.8% of Black adults were obese. White and Asian adults were 38% and 12.7% respectively. Childhood obesity was highest amongst Latino children at 25.8%, while 22% of Black children, 14% of White children, and 11% of Asian children were obese.

The report cites a number of initiatives that could help bend the obesity curve, including:

  • Expand access to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) food packages.
     
  • Increase the price of sugary drinks through excise taxes and use the revenue to address health and socioeconomic disparities.
     
  • Make it more difficult to market junk food to children by ending federal tax loopholes and business costs deductions related to the advertising of such foods to young audiences.
  • Strengthen and expand school nutrition programs beyond federal standards to include universal meals, flexible breakfasts and eliminate all junk food marketing to students.
     
  • Enforce existing laws that direct most health insurers to cover obesity-related preventive services at no-cost sharing to patients.
     
  • Cover pediatric weight management programs and services in Medicaid.

“These latest data shout that our national obesity crisis is getting worse. ”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Nine states had adult obesity rates at or above 35% in 2018, up from seven states at that level in 2017, an historic level of obesity.

Mississippi and West Virginia have the highest level of adult obesity in the nation at 39.5%, while Colorado has the lowest rate at 23%.

In 2012, no state had an adult obesity rate over 35%. From 2013 through 2018, 33 states had statistically significant increases in adult obesity.


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