Americans continue gaining weight, study shows

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Americans are getting even fatter.

Thirty-one percent of adults in the United States are obese -- up from 23 percent a decade ago and 15 percent in 1980.

Sedentary lifestyles and oversized food portions get much of the blame, experts said. And the problem is not limited to adults.

Among children over five years old, 15 percent are seriously overweight, and another 15 percent are at risk of becoming seriously overweight, according to two studies released in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Twenty-one percent of 2-to-5-year-olds are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

A 5-foot-6 adult is considered overweight at 155 pounds and obese at 186 pounds.

A 10-year-old boy who is 55 inches tall would be considered overweight at 94 pounds.

"It is discouraging to see," said Cynthia L. Ogden, a National Center for Health Statistics epidemiologist, who co-authored two papers for JAMA. "People are surprised that it has increased in the last decade as much as the previous decade. ... Everybody is getting heavier."

The epidemic portends mounting medical problems for the nation. Obesity increases a person's risk for such serious conditions as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and some cancers.

The prognosis for a turnaround is not encouraging. While some diet and exercise programs can produce modest long-term weight loss for individuals, Ogden and her colleagues wrote that "relatively little is known about the prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity on a population-wide basis."

The government researchers concluded, "it likely will be difficult to reverse the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States."

Around 1980, the prevalence of obesity started its upward trend, after remaining fairly constant since the early 1960s, when the government started to keep detailed records. Many experts attribute the sudden rise to a myriad of cultural and social forces, from food-portion sizes to sedentary lifestyles.

'Not tapering off'

"The environmental factors are enormous in our culture," said Robert Berkowitz, medical director for the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania. "The slope is pretty clearly going up, and it is not tapering off."

Sandra Hassink, director of the weight management program at A.I. du Pont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., said the problem is so daunting "that it is very easy to get overwhelmed and freeze."

The solutions will need to take place at "multiple levels," from government to schools to families, she said.

The two new government studies, which used height and weight measurements from nearly 9,000 adults and children, suggest that Americans are carrying excess weight regardless of age, race or gender.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: