According to statistics, over 70% of Americans adults are either overweight or obese.
Let that sink in.
A figure like this proves that the average American’s ability to maintain a healthy weight has spiraled out of control. Obesity is a societal crisis.
And this isn’t just a problem in America. Obesity statistics prove that a growing waistline is a worldwide trend affecting nearly all corners of the Earth and people of all ages. In the past 50 years, worldwide obesity rates have tripled.
Obesity facts and statistics like these show just how serious this epidemic is. Whether you’re part of the statistics, you’re a health practitioner, a concerned parent, or just curious, this article will detail a shocking range of obesity statics you need to know.
In this article, we’ll define exactly what it means to be obese, as opposed to just overweight. We’ll also review how obesity affects different groups of people, including the health problems it contributes to, the underlying causes of obesity, and how it can be prevented.
What Is Considered Obese?
Although you might look at someone and think, “Wow, that guy’s obese,” you might be wrong. There’s a technical medical definition that determines whether someone has a normal weight, whether they’re overweight, obese, or even severely obese.
These definitions all come down to BMI levels. Here’s the classification of obesity chart so that you can see for yourself:
|18 to <25
|Normal Weight Range
|25 to <30
|30 to <35
|Obese (Class 1)
|35 to <40
|Obese (Class 2)
|Obese (Class 3) or Severely Obese
This definition of obesity is used as the standard in the medical community and is approved by institutions such as the WHO and the CDC. For children, percentiles on the growth chart are used to determine whether or not a child is underweight, has a normal weight, or is overweight or obese.
What Is BMI and How Does It Work?
A BMI reading is accurate for most adults. However, sometimes, for people who are very athletic or who are older, BMI can be inaccurate. This is because athletes tend to have more muscle, which weighs more than fat. Usually, this means that a BMI reading would overestimate the fat content an athlete has. On the other hand, older people usually lose muscle as they age. So, their BMI reading might underestimate the amount of fat in their bodies.
Another issue with BMI is that it doesn’t take into account an individual’s bone mass. While some people have naturally slighter frames, other people have thicker bones. As a result, BMI can also lead to somewhat inaccurate results depending on your frame type.
One final possible flaw with the BMI system is that it doesn’t take body type into account. Believe it or not, belly fat around your middle is much more dangerous than fat in your thighs or rear. Abdominal, or visceral, fat poses more of a risk to your health as it’s associated with hormone imbalances that can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Other chemicals released by visceral fat are associated with blood clotting, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. This type of fat is also linked to type 2 diabetes. (1) BMI doesn’t always detect dangerous levels of visceral fat.
Despite these limitations, using BMI for obesity is an easy way for doctors to assess the weight of their patients. After determining your BMI, they can see where you fall on the obesity scale, if at all, and run further tests as your doctor sees fit.
Want to check your own BMI? Learn if you’re overweight or obese and what your BMI is now!
Obesity in America: Statistics
The American obesity rate is increasing. Although an obesity rate in America for 2019 isn’t currently available, the most recent studies show a growing trend. The results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show this precedent clearly:
- In 2007-2008, 33.7% of Americans were obese.
- In 2015-2016, 39.6% of Americans were obese.
- In 2007-2008, 5.7% of Americans were severely obese.
- In 2015-2016, 7.7% of Americans were severely obese.
Based on this increase in obesity in America by nearly 6% and the 2% increase in severe obesity, we can only assume that the obesity rate in America in 2018 was even greater. In 2019, it probably increased again according to statistics.
This large percentage of obese Americans in statistics appears more startling when you also include the percentage of Americans who are overweight. As you can see in the chart, all together, over 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese.
The percentage of obese Americans is greater than the percentage of Americans who are overweight and is also greater than the percentage of Americans who have a normal weight. Essentially, most Americans are overweight and it doesn’t look like this will change anytime soon.
As you might imagine, age also contributes to obesity. Most people who are middle-aged will agree that aging makes it harder to stay slim. Stress, changing activity levels, and a slowing metabolism may contribute to weight gain as you surpass your twenties and thirties.
That statistics of obesity in America show that it’s not just your imagination: middle-aged people are more likely to be overweight than younger adults.
However, adults aren’t the only ones who struggle with their weight. Childhood obesity is also a reality that concerns many healthcare professionals. Childhood statistics show that even children as young as 2 can be obese. But, it’s older children that are more likely to carry extra weight.
Obesity in children is measured differently than for adults. For children, rather than using just BMI as a measure, a child’s BMI is also compared to that of other American children. So, children who are obese are defined as those in the 95th percentile on the growth chart when compared to peers of the same sex.
The problem with increased obesity rates in older children is that interventions have less of an effect on the children. According to Dr. Nunlee-Bland, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Diabetes Center at Howard University Hospital, “by the time they’re an adolescent, the chances of them remaining obese is upward to 90, 95 percent,” even if treatment is obtained. So, it’s essential to intervene when children are still young enough to have a chance to change their futures.
So, how does the obesity rate change with age? Obesity in America viewed through statistics shows exactly how weight changes with age.
Obesity In the US: By Region and Group
There is a wide range of influencing factors on obesity as shown in statistics. Culture, food habits, and even financial status can all affect an individual’s weight. In addition, genetics also play a small role. Obesity experts look into all of these factors in part by evaluating statistics based on socioeconomic status, race, and even region. Below, we’ll explore each of these areas.
Obesity in America by the Socioeconomic Status and Education Level
The statistics related to education level and socioeconomic status are very complex. The picture painted is far from clear, making it hard to see any trends or patterns.
Here are some of the most interesting points:
- Overall, people with college degrees were less likely to be obese than those with less education. Specifically, college grads reported an obesity rate of 22.7% while adults with no high school degree or equivalent reported an obesity rate of 35.6%.
- Men were more likely to be obese if they fell in the middle-income group. Both low-income and high-income men showed a lower rate of obesity.
- Women in the highest income group were least likely to be obese, while women in the middle and lower income group were had higher obesity rates. However, statistics show that there was no difference in obesity prevalence by income among non-Hispanic black women. (2, 3)
Thus, the highest obesity rate is among those with the least education. These individuals are likely to also fall in the lower to middle-income groups.
Obesity Epidemic in America by Race
Genetics, culture, and food habits all vary by race. It’s interesting to notice how statistics on obesity change based on the backgrounds of individuals.
Here are some of the most outstanding facts on obesity statistics by race:
- The highest obesity rate is among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks. The obesity rates in these groups are 47% and 46.8% respectively.
- The obesity rate among non-Hispanic whites is 37.9%.
- The obesity rate among non-Hispanic Asians is 12.7%. (2)
Obesity by State and Region
The US is a big country with many states across a large territory. Different areas of the country have their own unique cultures and foods. All of this may influence obesity rates.
As you can see from this map, only a few states have obesity rates lower than 25%. These states and regions include Colorado, Hawaii, and Washington, DC. Most of the West and New England have rates between 25% and 30%. But, the South is where obesity rates are the highest.
Obesity In America Through the Years
Dedicated statistics on the US obesity rate didn’t begin until the 1990s. However, long before then, it’s suspected that the obesity rate in America was slowly creeping up.
Despite a long-term upward trend, there’s been a spike in recent years. In 1990, only 15% of the population in the US was obese. By 2016, that figure had over doubled, reaching 39% according to CDC obesity data. (4, 2)
Obesity in the US is harder to track in earlier years. However, studying data more specific to smaller populations can help. For example, students who enter the military were weighed and measured on a routine basis, even back in the late 1800s.
So, it’s easy to see how much 18-year old white men weighed, which we can then compare to how much they weighed at later points in time. Then, the first national survey of weight was done starting in 1959, giving a true starting point reference.
Why did the weight gain happen? It’s fascinating to note when different lifestyle and technological changes occurred that may have influenced the obesity epidemic. For example, the rise of fast food and the invention of the car are just two changes of note that may have contributed to a growing obesity rate in America.
The obesity epidemic isn’t limited to the USA. Statistics on obesity show that weight gain is a worldwide trend. In fact, since 1975, the worldwide obesity rate has nearly tripled. Despite this great increase, the worldwide obesity rate isn’t nearly as high as it is in the USA. Consider the following facts that show obesity prevalence around the world:
- The US adult obesity rate in 2016 was about 39%
- The worldwide adult obesity rate in 2016 was 13%
- Today, more people die due to being overweight than being underweight. The only regions where this is not true are sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
- In 2015, 32.4% of adults in Mexico were obese, making it the second most obese country worldwide. (5)
- Despite its high malnutrition rates, a survey showed that 33% of Indian 10th-12th graders are obese. (6) However, in the country in general, only 5% of adults are obese.
Obesity Facts: The Consequences
Obesity doesn’t just mean you look fat. Why is obesity such a problem?
Carrying around a significant amount of extra fat is associated with many health risks. In fact, medical costs for people who are obese are $1429 more than for people who have a normal weight. And that was in 2008!
Some of the most common obesity-related diseases include:
Type 2 diabetes can be prevented and even controlled by weight loss. This disease essentially means that your blood sugar levels get out of control because your body no longer uses insulin the right way. Obesity is one of the main causes of diabetes.
In fact, two-thirds of adults with type 2 diabetes are obese. Furthermore, having diabetes also increases your risk of developing a heart condition. If you have diabetes, you’re 2-4 times more at risk for heart disease.
But, research shows that even losing 5% of your body weight can help reduce your risk of contracting diabetes. (7)
People who are obese have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease because of certain conditions that are associated with obesity. For example, people who are obese often have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or hypertension, and an enlarged left area of the heart. In addition, high blood pressure can cause heart attacks, which are also more common in obese people.
How does obesity cause cardiovascular disease? The bigger you are, the more oxygen your body needs. This means your blood pressure increases as your heart works to get the blood all over your body.
While 1 in 5 people in the general population has been diagnosed with arthritis, up to 1 in 3 Americans who are obese have been diagnosed with the disease. But, not only does obesity make you more likely to be diagnosed, it also makes the condition worse once you have arthritis.
Arthritis involves the wearing down of the joints due to the stress put on them. Genetics and age, among other factors, play a role. But the role of extra weight is obvious: the more weight a joint must bear, the more stress and the more likely connective tissues will break down.
How does it work exactly? Every pound of excess weight adds 4 pounds of pressure to the knees. So, if you’re 50 pounds overweight, that’s 200 pounds of extra pressure on your knees. In addition, fat may produce chemicals that cause inflammation, making the condition worse.
These chemicals may also play a role in rheumatoid arthritis. The good news is, as with other obesity problems and conditions, every pound counts. Losing weight can help reduce symptoms and your risk of developing arthritis. (8)
Being overweight or obese is to blame for up to 8% of cancers in the USA. In addition, the extra weight is the reason for 7% of cancer deaths in the country.
This is because obesity puts you at greater risk for certain cancers like breast cancer for postmenopausal women, colon and rectum cancers, endometrium, esophagus, kidney and pancreatic cancers, among others. Reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight. (9)
Obesity Death Rates
One of the effects of obesity is premature death. In fact, obesity and overweight are the second leading preventable cause of death in the USA. Some studies even show that rising obesity levels in the USA have prevented improvement in life expectancy in the country.
As actress Judy Davis said, “This might be the first generation where kids are dying at a younger age than their parents and it’s related primarily to the obesity problem.”
Although these facts about the effects of obesity might sound scary, it’s important to remember that studies and stories of overweight people prove that losing weight can turn your health around. Some people have even reversed their chronic conditions, eliminating the need for prescriptions and other treatments.
What Causes Obesity?
There are a number of factors that can affect an individual’s weight. However, the principal causes of obesity are related to food and exercise. People are eating more high-calorie foods. But, people are also moving less.
Most people’s jobs are sedentary and many people also use cars to transport themselves rather than walking or biking. Some of these changes are societal. In some cases, urbanization and changing landscapes may even prevent people from being active.
As former US Surgeon General, David Satcher said “Many people believe that dealing with overweight and obesity is a personal responsibility. To some degree they are right, but it is also a community responsibility. When there are no safe, accessible places for children to play or adults to walk, jog, or ride a bike, that is a community responsibility.”
Diet is also a lifestyle issue. People may eat more high-calorie foods for many reasons, but it’s mainly because they’re easily available. Prepared meals, eating out, and ordering in are easily accessible in many countries.
Unfortunately, restaurant foods and prepared meals are usually higher in calories, sugar, and fat, and lower in fiber than foods you might prepare at home. As a result, people gain weight.
What About Countries Where Obesity Rates Are Low, Like Japan?
Societal expectations about weight in Japan, where the obesity rate is 3.6%, are very different than in the US. The government has even made laws about waist sizes! In addition, portion sizes are smaller in the Asian nation.
Furthermore, the Japanese are known for eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Finally, they walk more than the typical American. All of these factors contribute to a nation of very slim people. (10, 11)
What Are Other Causes Of Obesity?
Other contributing factors to obesity include some health conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome and Cushing’s disease. In addition, some medications for depression and steroids can also cause weight gain.
Sure, genetics may also play a role in obesity. But, experts believe that it is a small factor that, although admittedly not well understood, can’t be held responsible for the obesity epidemic. Essentially, this means that you DO have control over your weight in most cases. (12)
As mentioned before, there are many factors that can lead to obesity such as genetics and some hormone-related conditions (12). However, since the primary cause of obesity is related to environmental factors like diet, then improving the way a person eats, as well as helping them burn more calories, can help lower their risk of obesity.
How to prevent obesity through diet
There are many diets out there that promise weight loss, and although many of them can help a person lose weight, they may not be easy to stick to. Not to mention that some of these diets, known as fad diets, may cut out food groups that can deprive you of important nutrients that the body needs.
They can also be hard to stick to since some of these diets can cut calories dramatically and in turn deprive your body of the proper amount of energy it needs to function.
Research shows that the best way to approach a healthy diet for weight loss is to take a simple approach. This simple approach means that instead of trying to cut out a bunch of different foods and food groups, you should focus on the following basic guidelines to healthy eating (13,14).
- Consume at least 14 ounces (400 grams) of fruits and vegetables each day. Be sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to not only enjoy plenty of fiber, but to reap the benefits of all the different antioxidants these foods contain. These antioxidants can help reduce inflammation in the body and in turn reduce risk of inflammatory conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
- Eat plenty of high-quality proteins. Examples of such high-quality proteins include fresh meats, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products as well as plant-based proteins like nuts, seeds, beans and lentils, and tofu. Protein not only makes you feel fuller longer, but can also help you maintain lean muscle mass that can help support a healthy metabolism. With a healthy metabolism, your body can perform better at burning calories and managing weight.
- Add in whole grains to meals and snacks. Eating more whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, and corn that can provide gut-friendly fiber and keep you fuller longer after meals.
- Reduce unhealthy foods like added sugars, refined grains, and highly processed foods. A healthy diet should contain very little added sugars and refined grains like white flour. Foods that contain high amounts of sugar, fat, and refined starches are considered highly processed foods. These types of foods, such as salty snacks, white breads and pasta, sweets, and baked goods, typically contain very little nutrients and are high in calories. In turn, consuming a lot of these foods can increase risk of overweight and obesity as well as related conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
How to prevent obesity by exercise
Along with consuming a healthy diet, you can lower your risk of obesity by moving more each day. The United States Department of Health and Human Services suggest that most adults should engage in moderate exercise at least 150 minutes a week (15). This comes out to about 30 minutes a day for most days of the week.
Moderate exercise should increase your breathing rate slightly, but not too much, and you should start to break out in a light sweat after about 10 minutes (16). Examples of such activity include walking, gardening, water aerobics, or mowing the lawn, to name a few.
Childhood obesity prevention
To truly lower the rate of obesity in the country, it’s important to teach children how to live a healthy life so they can prevent obesity before it starts. You can help prevent childhood obesity by starting healthy eating at home.
This means having the whole family consume a healthier diet and engage in physical activity most days of the week (17). Parents and guardians should provide a healthy example to the children so they can be encouraged to be healthier. Other healthy guidelines to prevent childhood obesity include (17, 15):
- Encourage at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Reduce screen time in front of phones, computers, and television so exercise and play time can be encouraged.
- Teach your children healthy eating habits. This means that you should tell your child to chew their food slowly and to only eat when hungry. These habits will discourage eating excessive amounts of calories that can lead to overweight and obesity.
- Keep the kitchen stocked with healthy foods. If you have more healthy foods available, then this will increase the chances of those in your household eating such foods.
- Focus on serving water more rather than sugary drinks. By encouraging more water intake, you can reduce the amount of sugar in your child’s diet and in turn lower risk of obesity and dental caries.
The Bottom Line on Obesity in America
Obesity is a big problem in the USA, which is why there’s a lot of collective energy behind losing weight and preventing obesity in the first place. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’re not alone. Nearly 50% of Americans reported that they’d tried to lose weight in the last year.
The reality is that if you’re obese, losing weight is one of the best things you can do for your health. Reversing the US obesity epidemic starts with you, either through prevention or losing weight. If you’re obese and you haven’t yet talked to your doctor about your weight and practical ways to work towards a weight loss goal, do it! With simple lifestyle changes, and consistency, you can turn your life, and health, around.
- Abdominal fat and what to do about it. Harvard Health Publishing.
- Adult Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Adult Obesity Prevalence Maps. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- An Epidemic of Obesity: U.S. Obesity Trends. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
- Sugar tax: Are Mexicans the fattest people in the world? BBC News, 6 April 2018.
- Basu, Moni. India, notorious for malnutrition, is now a land of obesity. CNN.
- Dansinger, Michael MD. Type 2 Diabetes. WebMD, 6 December 2020.
- Weight Loss Benefits for Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
- Obesity Rates Continue to Rise Among Adults in the US. American Cancer Society, 6 April 2018.
- Nakamura, David. How Japan Defines ‘Fat’. The Atlantic, 10 November 2009.
- Gallagher, James. The diets cutting one in five lives short every year. BBC News, 4 April 2019.
- Adult Obesity Causes & Consequences. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Koliaki, Chrysi. Defining the Optimal Dietary Approach for Safe, Effective and Sustainable Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults. Healthcare (Basel), September 2018.
- Doo, Miae and Yangha Kim. The Consumption of Dietary Antioxidant Vitamins Modifies the Risk of Obesity among Korean Men with Short Sleep Duration. Nutrients, July 2017.
- President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
- Exercise intensity: How to measure it. Mayo Clinic.
- Preventing Obesity in Children, Teens, and Adults. Johns Hopkins Medicine.