Oct. 8, 2002 -- We've heard it before -- Americans are getting fatter. And a new report shows that our growing size is a national health crisis we can't ignore. New government figures show almost one in three American adults is obese and well over half are overweight. And an alarming number of kids, even toddlers, are packing on too many pounds.
The findings -- from a government survey conducted from 1999-2000 -- suggest that obesity has increased steadily in the U.S. for the last two decades. The results appear in the Oct. 9 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.
Just over 30% of adults were considered obese in the new survey, compared with 23% in a previous survey conducted from 1988-1994. The percentage of Americans who were overweight increased from 56% to 64%, and the rate of extreme obesity increased from roughly 3% to almost 5%.
Body mass index, or BMI, is used by doctors to determine if someone is overweight or obese. Generally speaking, it is an excellent tool -- accurate for just about everyone except extremely muscular people, such as bodybuilders.
A person with a BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight. Obesity and extreme obesity are defined as a BMI of 30 or more, and 40 or more, respectively.
A 5'5" person would be considered overweight at 150 pounds, and obese at 180 pounds. A 6' tall person would be considered overweight at 185 pounds and obese at 220.
Obesity among adults increased by almost 8% during the 1990s, after rising by almost the same amount during the 1980s, NCHS epidemiologist Cynthia L. Ogden, PhD, tells WebMD.
"This is definitely a continuing trend," she says. "These figures suggest that the problem of obesity and overweight continue to get worse in the U.S., and it is happening for every age, sex, and ethnic group."
Increases occurred for both men and women in all age groups and ethnic backgrounds, but some groups saw larger increases than others. Among women, increases were highest among blacks, with half considered obese and close to 80% considered overweight.
Among children, 15% of those between ages 6 and 19 were overweight, compared with roughly 11% in the previous survey. The problem was even worse among black and Mexican-American adolescents -- by more than 10%.
The researchers say that while the potential health benefits from lowering the rate of obesity are great, reversing the trend will be difficult. The problem's urgency was illustrated late last year when U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a statement calling obesity one of the "most pressing new health challenges that we face today." He noted that being overweight causes as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking.
So why are so many Americans packing on the pounds? There are plenty of theories, but no hard answers. Experts tell us that we are eating more and exercising less than we did three or four decades ago, but this is difficult to prove through scientific studies.
Nutritionist Marion Nestle, PhD, puts the blame squarely on the supersizing of our diet and the inability of Americans to say enough is enough. Nestle chairs the nutrition and food studies department at New York University, and is the author of the book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.
"Everywhere I go there is a tremendous disconnect, or maybe it is complete denial, about what constitutes reasonable portions," she tells WebMD. "A bagel used to be about 200 calories, but they are about three times as big now. So what used to be a 200-calorie experience is now about 600, and that's without putting anything on it. And soft drinks come in 64-ounce sizes. That's 800 calories."
American College of Sports Medicine president Edward Howley, PhD, believes that lack of exercise is the main culprit in the ever-expanding waistline of America. Figures suggest that more than 60% of adults in the U.S. don't get the recommended amount of exercise, and one in four gets no exercise at all.
"Obviously, our lives have changed over the past 30 or 40 years," he says. "We rely on cars, computers, and other conveniences, and as a result we don't expend the energy that we once did during the course of a day. That is one of the reasons exercising every day is so important. Even modest exercise can have tremendous health benefits."