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A distressing milestone: For first time, more Americans are obese than overweight

“This is a wake-up call to implement policies and practices designed to combat overweight and obesity,” said researcher Lin Yang.

Two-thirds of Americans aged 25 and older — 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women — are either overweight or obese.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The United States has now reached a very unhealthy milestone: For the first time, the number of obese Americans outnumbers the number of overweight ones.

According to new research published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, 67.6 million U.S. adults aged 25 and older are obese and an additional 65.2 million are overweight.

In all, two-thirds of Americans aged 25 and older — 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women — are either overweight or obese, according to the report, which used data collected between 2007-2012 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

A similar study published two decades ago estimated that 63 percent of men and 55 percent of women were overweight or obese.

A ‘wake-up call’

“This is a wake-up call to implement policies and practices designed to combat overweight and obesity,” said Lin Yang, a postdoctoral researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in a statement released with the study. Yang co-authored the study with Dr. Graham Colditz, a chronic disease epidemiologist and deputy director of the university’s Institute for Public Health.

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Health officials define being overweight as having a body-mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.5 and being obese as having a BMI of 30 or higher.  (You can determine your own BMI with this online calculator. And, yes, BMI is an imprecise and sometimes inaccurate way of determining a healthy weight. If you prefer, you can measure your waist to help determine if your body fat puts your health at risk.)

People who are overweight are at increased risk of developing several chronic health problems, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And the greater the weight, the greater the risk.

Additional findings

Here are some other findings from Yang and Colditz’s analysis of the latest NHANES data:

  • Obesity rates are similar for both younger adults (aged 25 to 54) and older adults (aged 55 and up).
  • Women are now more likely to be obese than overweight. In 2012, 37 percent of women were obese and 30 percent were overweight. Among men, 35 percent were obese and 40 percent were overweight.
  • Blacks have the highest rate of obesity. In 2012, 39 percent of black men and 57 percent of black women were obese. That compares with 35 percent of white men and 34 percent of white women. Among Mexican-Americans (the category name used by NHANES), 38 percent of men and 43 percent of women were obese in 2012. (There is no data for Asian-Americans, which until recently were under-sampled in the survey.)

Needed: a two-pronged approach

Combating the obesity epidemic will require public-health strategies as well as individuals’ actions, Yang and Colditz emphasize.

These strategies need to include, they say, changing the physical environments in our communities to encourage more physical activity, helping primary care doctors spend more time with patients on obesity prevention and treatment, and “altering societal norms of behavior” to encourage healthier eating and lifestyles.

“There are many things we can do to interrupt this worrisome and costly trend, and the benefits go well beyond what’s obvious to the eye,” said Colditz in the released 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.”

You’ll find an abstract of the study, which was published as a “research letter,” on the JAMA Internal Medicine website, but the full letter is behind a paywall.