Americans Lose More Ground in Fighting Obesity
Policy + Politics

Americans Lose More Ground in Fighting Obesity

There’s more bad news in the uphill effort to combat obesity – a problem that is fast becoming one of the nation’s most urgent and costly medical conditions.

A new survey by Gallup finds that the percentage of Americans who are considered obese ticked up to 27.7 percent in 2014 – an increase of two points since 2008.

The rate of dangerously overweight Americans increased the most among people over the age of 65 – with women showing greater problems with weight gains than men. But by far the ethnic groups struggling the most with the obesity are African Americans and Hispanics, with rates of 35.5 percent and 28.3 percent, respectively, compared with 26.7 percent for whites.

Related: Budget Busting U.S. Obesity Costs Climb Past $300 Billion a Year

Americans who are obese have the lowest “well-being” ratings of anyone across weight groups, according to Gallup. That finding is in line with research over the past decade or more that closely links obesity to high total cholesterol, coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and liver and gallbladder disease.

With obesity so pervasive, the overall costs to the country is striking: An analysis prepared for The Fiscal Times last year by Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight & Wellness at George Washington University, pegged the annual cost of obesity at $305.1 billion. That includes direct medical and non-medical services, worker productivity losses, disability issues and premature death.

The financial implications for federal and state health care programs are particularly dramatic. Overweight children and adults have emerged in recent years as a distinctive, worrisome category in the Medicare and Medicaid programs because of the high costs of treating related health problems.


The controversial decision by the American Medical Assn. in 2013 to declare obesity a disease as opposed to a disorder or condition could raise costs in the short run for drug therapies and surgery, but could save vast amounts by eliminating chronic diseases associated with obesity. The AMA said that arguing that obesity is not a disease because people eat too much is like saying lung cancer isn’t a disease because people smoke cigarettes.

“With the obesity rate increasing across nearly all demographic groups since 2008, it is imperative for employers, public health officials and individuals themselves to act to reverse the trend,” wrote by Jenna Levy, a Methodologist at Gallup. “However, given the link between lower well-being and obesity, these actions should focus on more than just diet and exercise.”

Related: How the Obesity Epidemic Drains Medicare and Medicaid   

While the Gallup findings are certainly troubling, it is likely that the survey actually understated the extent of the problem.

The results are based on more than 167,000 interviews conducted in 2014 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. But unlike government estimates of obesity, the Gallup-Healthways survey used respondents’ self-reported height and weight to calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI) – the widely accepted measurement of whether an individual is overweight, obese or “morbidly” obese.

It should not come as a surprise to researchers that some people are embarrassed by questions about their weight – or may not really know how much they weigh – and consequently understate this vital information when responding to questioners.

By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government estimates of obesity are calculated using clinical measurements of height and weight as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The latest CDC-government survey results from 2011 and 2012 showed a 34.9 percent obesity rate for adults aged 20 or older, or roughly similar to the data collected since 2003.

Related: Billions in Tax Dollars Subsidize Junk Food Industry  

The Body Mass Index is a ratio of an individual’s weight to height. Individual BMI index scores of 30 or above are classified as "obese," 25 to 29.9 are "overweight," 18.5 to 24.9 are "normal weight" and 18.4 or less are "underweight."

While the Gallup-Healthways data show that just more than 35 percent of Americans have been classified as "normal weight" from 2008 to 2014, the obesity rate has risen each year except 2011, with at least a quarter of adults having BMIs categorized as obese.

In the past half century, the share of obese adults has increased from just one in eight in 1960 to over one in three today. More than a third of all adults and 17 percent of young people are obese, according to some experts.

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