The United States will not be escaping the obesity epidemic crisis anytime soon: Nearly 40% of adults and 19% of youth are obese, the highest rate the country has ever seen in all adults, according to research released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Since 1999, there has been a staggering rise in the prevalence of obesity, particularly in adults, without any “signs of it slowing down,” according to the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Craig Hales, medical epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Youth obesity rates seem to be more stable in recent years. However, it is “too early to tell” what direction youth obesity prevalence will take. At least four more years of data are required to truly understand the direction, Hales said.
What is “very striking” about this information is that there has been a 30% increase in adult obesity and 33% increase in youth obesity from 1999-2000 data to 2015-16, despite government-focused efforts to address the issue, according to Michael W. Long, assistant professor at the Milken Institute of School Public Health at George Washington University.
“They haven’t done enough,” said Long, who was not involved in the new report.
When looking at the goals of Healthy People 2020 — a 2010 government effort to improve the health of Americans, including by reducing obesity — the crisis looms even larger. The initiative aims to lower obesity rates to 14.5% among youth and 30.5% among adults by 2020.
“I have no expectation at all for Healthy People 2020 to be achieved,” Long said.
Hispanic adults had an obesity rate of 47% and Non-Hispanic black adults a rate of 46.8% in 2015-16, the new report showed, with non-Hispanic white adults at 37.9% and Asian adults at 12.7%.
Among youths, Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks also had higher rates of obesity, at 25.8% and 22% respectively, compared with 14% of non-Hispanic whites and 11% of Asians.
Even though the trend of racial disparities in obesity for youth and adults is not necessarily new, Long says it should remain a primary area of concern. “This equity issue is a serious problem that will lead to disparities in health and life expectancies for the next entire generation of children,” he said.
For the study, data were collected from Americans ages 2 to 19 and 20 and older, through mobile physical examination centers across the country, and then measured using body-mass index (BMI), considered the “gold standard” for obesity prevalence in large population sizes, Hales said. Body mass index is the ratio between a person’s weight and height; a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while anything over 30 is obese.
Integrating the research and interventions from all demographic groups can provide a better understanding of how effective efforts have been at fighting childhood obesity, said Dr. Ihuoma Eneli, professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University and director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She was not involved in the new report.
Long said that improving racial disparities in obesity may involve implementing policies such as raising soda taxes and improving the quality of benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides healthy food for families, housing vouchers, and home energy assistance.
Efforts to reduce obesity, especially in children, will also come from a change in policy, Eneli said. It is important to start looking at the effectiveness of available health programs at public health institutions, school systems, and clinics.
Family plays a role in curbing obesity, as well. Interventions such as avoiding fast food, eating healthy meals together and planning family activities are great ways to support a child with obesity, Eneli suggested.
The most important point is to avoid isolating children in trying to treat their obesity. Planning to be healthy together can put a family on the right path, she said.