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Almost half of American adults will have obesity within the next decade, researchers predict

Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash
Currently, 40 percent of American adults have obesity, and 18 percent have severe obesity, the study’s authors estimate.

One in two American adults will have obesity within 10 years, and one in four will have severe obesity, which typically means carrying around more than 100 pounds of excess weight, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

The study also estimates that no state, including Minnesota, will have an adult obesity rate of less than 35 percent by 2030, and more than half of the states — 29 — will have a rate greater than 50 percent.

Just seven years ago, no state had an adult obesity rate above 35 percent.

Currently, 40 percent of American adults have obesity (defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 to 34.9), and 18 percent have severe obesity (a BMI of 35 or higher), the study’s authors estimate.

A report published earlier this year put Minnesota’s adult obesity rate at 30.1 percent. The NEJM study predicts the state’s rate will jump to 46.1 by 2030. It also predicts that the state’s severe obesity rate will reach 20.4 percent.

These grim predictions have major health and economic implications. As I’ve noted in Second Opinion before, people with obesity, especially severe obesity, are at increased risk for many health problems, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers (including breast, colon and kidney), osteoarthritis and clinical depression.

Obesity is estimated to cost the U.S. economy at least $149 billion each year in increased medical expenses — half of which is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. Minnesota’s obesity-related health care costs are estimated at $3.2 billion annually.

More realistic data

To make their projections, the authors of the NEJM study — a team of researchers from Harvard University and George Washington University — analyzed more than 20 years of BMI data on 6.2 million American adults. The data had been collected through national telephone surveys conducted regularly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because people tend to under-report their weight, the Harvard and George Washington researchers adjusted the CDC data to better align with a smaller national study in which BMI was determined more objectively by measuring people’s height and weight during standard medical exams. (BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by height.)

The researchers then used that adjusted data to make their obesity predictions — specifically, that 48.9 percent of American adults will have obesity and 24.2 percent will have severe obesity by 2030.

They also took take a deeper dive into the large database to determine obesity rates for individual states and specific demographic groups.

An alarming trend

On all those levels, the study’s findings are alarming, particularly the speed at which Americans are putting on excess pounds.

“Severe obesity has typically been a rare condition. But we find that it’s growing pretty rapidly in a lot of states,” says Zachary Ward, the study’s lead author and a programmer/analyst at Harvard University’s Center for Health Decision Science, in a video released with the study.

Indeed, some states, most notably Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia, will likely have obesity rates nearing 60 percent in 10 years, the study predicts.

Ward and his colleagues also predict that by 2030 severe obesity will be the most common BMI category nationally among women, black adults and those with an annual household income of less than $50,000.

And that will be true across the country.

“We find that for very low-income adults — adults with less than $20,000 annual household income — severe obesity will be the most common BMI category in 44 states — basically, everywhere in the country,” Ward says.

More effort on prevention

It may be possible to slow down the trends predicted in the study, but it’s going to take concerted and aggressive action.

“There’s a lot that state policymakers can do, actually,” says Ward. “One of the most effective interventions — cost-effective interventions — that we found is limiting intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Previous research, he points out, has found that taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is particularly effective at reducing the consumption of such products. And the cost to governments of implementing a beverage tax is more than likely to be offset by the savings in health care related expenses, he adds.

“In much of our work we find that prevention really is going to be the key to better managing this epidemic,” Ward stresses. “It’s really hard to lose weight. It’s really hard to treat obesity. And, so, prevention really has to be at the forefront of efforts to combat this epidemic.”

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the NEJM website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/23/2019 - 09:49 am.

    Alarming, indeed. I’ve managed to wean myself from sugar-based soft drinks (actually, from soft drinks in general), and have been able to maintain, over the past 5 years, a BMI of about 28, and a weight of about 200 lbs. (+ or – 2 lbs.). It’s the only upside to Type II diabetes that I’ve found so far. Daily exercise and a substantial change in diet brought about by the diagnosis have had some effect, but mostly as an aid in holding weight where it is, not in terms of any kind of “reversal.” I’ve lost height (back surgery and old-age shrinkage) since graduating from high school, but have ended up putting on a stereotypical one-pound-per-year since I was a teen, though not all of it arrived regularly. I gained 25 lbs. in a single year after I quit smoking, which stayed with me for 25 years, but I lost 25 lbs. in the month before I was diagnosed as Type II diabetic (it’s that weight loss that got my attention). I’ll certainly vouch for the assertion that it IS very hard to lose weight, and I no longer try to do so. I’m more concerned now with maintaining current figures for weight, A1C, and a variety of other metrics.

  2. Submitted by Alan Straka on 12/23/2019 - 11:49 am.

    Taxing soft drinks may be a good first step but it gives a pass to all the other foods that are calorie dense and nutrient poor. A better approach would be to tax the main culprit, sugar (in all its forms). Taxing sugar would cover a multitude of bad food choices. The problem is that it would require action on a federal level and Congress (and federal officials in general) has been feeding at the big ag trough for too long to do what is good for the nation. Taxing sweetened drinks is something that can be done locally but those local actions that have been tried have largely failed as a result of money spent by the soft drink lobby proving that local politicians are every bit as corrupt as those in Congress.

  3. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 12/23/2019 - 03:46 pm.

    The American exports of McDonald’s, KFC, other fast food restaurants, 7-Eleven and other convenience stores with processed junk food, have contributed to increasing obesity throughout the world, especially among young people. Now one sees older people who eat a traditional diet in their home nations be thin or of normal weight, while the young, especially school children, go to a convenience store or fast food outlet for what they consider to be delicious food.
    Having worked and lived in other nations, mostly those considered third world, for a couple of decades, I find that I gain weight when I am in the USA and return to my normal weight when abroad, since I am able to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat that is not filled with steroids and other chemicals at small local markets. With a BMI of 23 I am considered to be an old guy of normal weight when abroad, but even thin by some when back in the USA. Unfortunately, those who need fresh foods the most in the USA, especially residents in poor areas, often do not have access to it.

  4. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 12/23/2019 - 04:26 pm.

    Another study about an already well-documented problem! What is needed is not another study documenting the problem, but some concerted action by the health care industry into therapies that are patient focused not the “one size fits all” that the health care industry fancies. The health care industry loves to do bariatric surgeries (very profitable) and hand out generic diets or “lifestyle counseling” (very low cost) but seems unwilling to invest in what other therapies might be successful. The industry has done some remarkable work treating eating disorders – but only so long as the disorder is NOT eating enough, rather than eating too much.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 12/23/2019 - 06:43 pm.

    Not merely sugar, but excessive fat–and too many calories in general are the main cause, along with lack of sufficient exercise..

    How grateful I am that when I was a child my mother created a fairly well balanced diet for our household, and that my father expertly created a wonderful garden every year.

    And yes, fresh vegetables are wonderful, but even canned or frozen will do; canned or frozen fruit less well so.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/27/2019 - 07:02 pm.

    No wonder the USA has such high health care costs. Maybe Big Pharma is only partly responsible.

  7. Submitted by Tom Wilson on 12/27/2019 - 10:15 pm.

    Big ag. is just as guilty as big pharma…. hint, no fast food….ever.

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