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Childhood and Adult Obesity not Budging Much in the U.S.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Malven

The rates of obesity in the U.S. are holding steady, despite ongoing efforts to curb the epidemic, according to two new reports, published online Tuesday in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. About 35 percent of adults and about 17 percent of kids were obese in the period from 2009 to 2010 (the most recent years for which data were available).

For most adults, these rates have remained about the same for more than a decade. But some groups—non-Hispanic black women and women of Mexican ancestry in particular—have seen an increased obesity rate since 1999. And, according to Katherine Flegal of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her study co-authors, “We found no indication that the prevalence of obesity is declining in any group.” For both men and women 20 years and older overall, mean age-adjusted body mass index (BMI) was 28.7, which is toward the upper end of overweight, sneaking toward the obese category.

For children, however, the story has been slightly different, according to the second study in JAMA. Boys, in particular, have been becoming obese at higher rates than girls in the past decade. And the most recent data shows 18.6 percent boys between two and 19 were obese whereas only 15 percent of girls fit this category.

The extra weight might start accumulating as early as infancy—or pregnancy. In 2009–10 nearly 10 percent of babies younger than 24 months weighed more than their length would dictate (a BMI, of sorts, for babies). Recent research has also suggested a mother’s weight during pregnancy can influence her offspring’s chances of becoming obese. The obesity risk also steadily increased with age: 12 percent of kids aged two to five years, 18 percent of kids six to 11 years, and 18 percent of kids 12 to 18 years were obese, according to the JAMA study.

Obese children may be at risk for both short-term health consequences and long-term tracking of obesity to adulthood,” Cynthia Ogden, of the NCHS, and her team wrote in their paper.

As with adults, the obesity burden is unevenly distributed among groups for young people. Almost one in four non-Hispanic black kids or teens were obese and about one in five Hispanic kids or teens suffered from obesity—compared with about one in seven white kids or teens.

The relative stability of obesity rates in the past decade suggests that it might not be headed for exponential increase, as many previous reports have suggested. Nevertheless, the current damage to U.S. health from obesity is already as heavy as that from smoking. And recent estimates suggest that obesity’s many health consequences—from diabetes to heart disease—are running up an annual bill of $147 billion in health care expenses, which does not include other documented losses such as decreases in productivity and the quality of life.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. David N'Gog 4:46 pm 01/17/2012

    Of course; the media, the public, and the government complain about how overweight we are…

    … meanwhile – for every dollar that farmers get for growing maize- 50cents comes right out of our taxes.

    I understand the political implications and motivations for subsidizing farming- and I don’t want to get into a political debate. However, if we have to subsidize farming- how about it be for HEALTHY things- like vegtables, fruit, grass-raised animals.

    It costs so little to make sweeteners thanks to corn syrup that it is put in everything nowadays. Not to mention that it has more “unhealthy” fats than “healthy” fats- as is the case for grain fed animals too.

    I think if we stop subsidizing Maize and grains- even if we subsidize all other farming it would go a long way. Why artificially make unhealthy foods cheaper?

    I’m generally healthy; but my tax money is going to make other people fat.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 5:42 pm 01/17/2012

    It’s not about subsidizing industries. I live in this ‘corn sugar’ society and don’t have an ounce of fat on me.

    It’s about personal responsibiloity and the need to call obsese chioldren what they are…products of BAD parenting.

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  3. 3. notslic 6:34 pm 01/17/2012

    I would also like to see the correlation between poverty and obesity. Poor people used to be skinny. I drive by a charity food distribution place and see that the line of people is dominated by the extremely obese.

    Here on the West slope of the Rockies we grow the best food in the world. Although Colorado is known as a fit state, around here the obesity rate is very high.

    To think that subsidizing corn instead of vegetables makes people fat does not make sense to me. Veggies can be as fattening as anything, depending on what you cook them with or put on them. And the corn subsidy is all about methanol, not corn syrup. Subsidies are also put in place so that American farmers can compete with foreign produce that is supported by subsidies. It is a vicious circle.

    And since when is grass not a grain? My Angus eat grass all Summer and hay that I grow all Winter. I don’t receive a cent of subsidy money.

    Smoking has been on the decline ever since an education campaign was put in place. I wonder why being fat is not also declining?

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  4. 4. albee 7:19 pm 01/17/2012

    The primary reason so many poor people are fat is that high calorie junk food is cheap compared to healthier food. Also, especially in urban centers, poor people have less access to healthier food. The local stores within walking distance tend to carry quite a bit of junk food, but not a lot of fruits and vegetables.

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 9:50 pm 01/17/2012

    Junk food isn’t cheaper than healthy choices. That’s a myth that is perpetuated to excuse away laziness.

    I don’t live anywhere near a ‘hot spot’ but can buy an apple, banana and orange for the price of a chocolate bar. I can make as veggie stir fry for half the cost of a frozen pizza.

    Poor Urban people can’t buy fruit and vegetables? Where exactly? Only wealthy middle class folks live ‘downtown’. It’s another ‘excusing away’ poor personal choices. No idea why a third Twinkie is a subsitute for anything.

    Why is obesity not decreasing…it’s in part because of the ‘victim attitude’. ‘I’m fat because of….(fill in the excuse of the week).

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  6. 6. alan6302 11:16 pm 01/17/2012

    After the nuclear war , everyone will lose weight.

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  7. 7. sault 1:15 am 01/18/2012

    Geo, come on, stop being so vindictive and listen to whats going on here. Obesiety is higher among poorer folk and minorities are disproportionally fat as well. Could it be that many run-down urban centers don’t have a lot of Whole Foods-type grocery stores? Could it be that these urban centers don’t have any safe places for these kids to play and for adults to work out?

    “I…can buy an apple, banana and orange for the price of a chocolate bar. I can make as veggie stir fry for half the cost of a frozen pizza.”

    Well, it depends on the chocolate bar and the type of fruit you’re buying, right? Do you realize that the cheapest calories out there are in soda (pop or whatever)? Do you realize that all the unhealthy crap on fast food menus is made cheaper by our disasterous farm policy? Why are we throwing billions of dollars away subsidizing commodities when they’re really just stacking up healthcare bills?

    There’s no evidence that our farmers are vulnerable to subsidized products from overseas. In fact, the biggest complaint in the global agriculture arena is that subsidized U.S. agricultural products flood the markets of developing countries and put local farmers out of business. This causes some of the immigration from Mexico as these people can’t make a living by farming their own land and it makes many other developing countries dependent on foreign food aid.

    Sure, people watch too much TV, play too many videogames and make poor food choices. These choices pack on the pounds. However, we shouldn’t be making it EASIER to make poor decisions just because of the outsize influence of farm-state lawmakers. Instead of subsidizing crops, maybe we should bring back gym class in schools with the money. Those programs have been gutted over the past 20 years. How about we use some of the money to make clean and secure outdoor spaces for communities across the country. We sure as heck haven’t tried this before, but the status quo is making us fat and bankrupt.

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  8. 8. 2quik4u2 5:02 am 01/18/2012

    I agree with Sault, with one caveat. These gym classes should be run by people certified to be personal trainers. In addition, it should be ok to push the kids a little. I find the middling “its ok not to try if you don’t want to” culture as contributing to kids failing both at fitness but also in schools in general.

    3-5 hrs of gym a week should keep the kids from gaining too much weight. Finally money should be given so that school cafeteria can give decent meals for the kids. Soft drinks should also be banned or atleast made very expensive. Yes it seems harsh, but sometimes harsh methods are necessary to get results.

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  9. 9. SpottedMarley 6:28 am 01/18/2012

    It’s an educational thing. An educated mind makes better decisions and resists media programming a little better too I would guess. The impoverished are less educated and thus, less armed against the corporations who would condition their eating habits to benefit sales of their product. Most of these people probably believe that most of the crap they are poisoning themselves with is actually healthy. The tv said so.

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  10. 10. geojellyroll 9:40 am 01/18/2012

    Sault and your other alias (you are fooling nobody). Rural America is FATTER than urban America. Also, poor people are not stupid as you claim. Hint…it does not take a university education to know that smoking is not good for ones health or that a banana is a healthier snack than a chocolate bar.

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  11. 11. ASHIK 9:55 am 01/18/2012

    I expect the obesity to continue in the future at same steady rate.Genetical influence towards obesity effect some homo sapiens far greater compared to influence from food.I am thankful to gene in me which has kept me slim till now and i am positive it will keep me slim in future.I want to eat “meat ball” with tennis racket in its hand.

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  12. 12. GeekStatus 10:05 am 01/18/2012

    The genetics argument is simply another cop out. Study the trend in obesity in America over time. The genetics didn’t change but the food and the lifestyles have. Sedentary lifestyles combined with high calorie diets have created this problem.

    In the end its is and always has been a matter of calories. Eat a balanced, healthy diet and voila you aren’t obese. Its not rocket science.

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  13. 13. OnePumpChump 10:38 am 01/19/2012

    “Sedentary lifestyles combined with high calorie diets have created this problem.”

    People aren’t any lazier than they were 40 years ago.

    Americans live in a high-calorie environment, and no, not all calories are equal. Some calories make you want to stop eating, others don’t. Some calories are easier to change into fat than others. It isn’t just the number of calories, it’s the form those calories come in. It may also be the specific pace at which they come (not just on average, but how much at once).

    Americans live in a low-exercise environment, one where casual exercise is discouraged or impossible. Lack of public transportation infrastructure, cities built to the exclusion of other modes of transit, long setbacks and large lots making distances unnecessarily large, zoning keeping work and shopping separated from where people live…all make it difficult to walk or cycle on a regular basis. If you do not have a car in most of the US, you do not get to participate fully in its economy or in its society. In some places its more like “not at all.”

    Obesity is only simple if you never look past “calories burned > calories consumed,” if you never consider WHY those numbers are what they are.

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