5 Shocking Facts About Obesity in America

A new analysis of data on body mass index reveals we’re tipping the scales, and then some.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Jun 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

There’s plenty to celebrate on the healthy eating front: Cereal brands and fast-food joints are dropping artificial colors and flavors, and trans fats have been banned. But while those kinds of changes will likely lead to more nutritious food offerings, given the latest data on America’s obesity problem, the adjustments seem like too little, too late.

At least, that’s how you might feel after reading some of the information culled from a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The data compiled by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reveals just how jaw-dropping the nation’s weight problem has become.

The researchers pulled body mass index data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2007 to 2012 on a representative sample size of more than 15,200 people ages 25 or older. From that they were able to estimate the BMI of more than 188 million Americans.

How out of control is our weight problem?

1. More Americans are obese than overweight.

Lifestyle magazines tend to be full of tips on how to drop five or 10 pounds. But plenty of Americans need to lose a whole lot more than that to have a healthy BMI (between 18.5 and 24.9). According to the researchers, 67.6 million Americans older than age 25 in 2012 had a BMI over 30, which is considered obese. That outpaces the 65.2 million citizens with BMIs between 25 and 29.9, who were considered overweight.

2. Overall, more men than women are too heavy.

Women are often fat shamed in the media and pressured to look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. But when the researchers measured the number of folks who are either overweight or obese, they found that more guys are struggling with their waistline. The researchers found that nearly 75 percent of men are overweight or obese, compared with 67 percent of women. And thanks to the “dad bod” phenomenon, guys with bellies and love handles are being celebrated.

3. If they’re heavy, women are more likely to be obese than overweight.

Of the ladies who need to drop some pounds, 37 percent are classified as obese and 30 percent are considered overweight.

4. Black Americans are the most obese racial or ethnic group.

Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry around gun violence and police brutality. But according to the data, it seems the phrase should also be applied to black Americans’ physical health. The researchers found that black Americans are the most obese of all racial and ethnic groups—an astounding 39 percent of black men and 57 percent of black women are obese. Even more sobering: Seventeen percent of black women and 7 percent of black men have a body mass index over 40, which puts them into the “extremely obese” category. This shouldnt be such a surprise given the connection between poverty rates and obesity. And no wonder just over 13 percent of black folk are diabetic, the second-highest proportion after Native Americans.

5. Latino Americans are struggling with the scale too.

The nations Latino population is soaring—and many of those individuals are likely to be heavy, particularly if they are Mexican American. According to the researchers, 43 percent of Mexican American women and 38 percent of Mexican American men are obese. (Interestingly enough, residents of Mexico, which is home to one of the heaviest populations on the planet, are also the most confident about their bodies.)

So, Why Should You Care? With sky-high BMI rates such as these, America is well positioned to be the home of the free and the land of folks with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Our health care costs have already played a role in recent presidential elections, and the expense of treating the obesity-related illnesses of millions of U.S. citizens could suck future state and federal budgets dry.

“There are many things we can do to interrupt this worrisome and costly trend, and the benefits go well beyond whats obvious to the eye,” Graham A. Colditz, one of the studys authors, said in a statement. “Some cancers, for example, can be prevented by eating a healthy diet, exercising and keeping weight in check. We need to do what we can to change behaviors of current and future generations to reverse this preventable societal burden.”

Perhaps these stats will be a wake-up call that eating less and moving more has to be a national priority.