Obesity numbers steady, but well short of health goals
■ A CDC statistics roundup suggests some weight subsets have settled, but the burden is still significant.
By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Jan. 26, 2009
The proportion of adults who are overweight or obese may be stabilizing, but this finding is not an indication the country is thinner or the obesity epidemic is slowing, according to public health officials and weight control experts.
"The rate of overweight and obesity in the U.S. is so high. You need to have a plateau at some point before 100%, and we're not all that far from it," said David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Conn. "Everybody who is vulnerable to this condition is already there, leaving only the most resistant. We would expect the trend to slow down. It doesn't mean we are solving the problem."
According to a Health E-Stat published in December 2008 on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics Web site, 32.2% of adults ages 20-74 were overweight in the 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After growing for many years and hitting 32.9% in the 2003-04 survey, the numbers for those who are obese did not change significantly in 2005-06. Numbers for extreme obesity grew from 0.9% in the 1960-62 survey to 6.2% in 2005-06.
Experts responded to these figures with cautious optimism. They noted, though, that not enough time has passed to know if this stabilization is a true positive indicator. The lack of significant growth in obesity since 2003-04 may be a statistical fluke. When broken down by gender, statistics for adults show that the rate of obesity may have stopped growing for women but not for men, and data for children have not been promising.
"We have to be careful how we look at the data," said Mary Vernon, MD, board chair of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. "Are people healthier? The answer is no."
Also, most believe the shift is a result of people moving from one category to another, but not necessarily in a good direction. "The whole population got heavier, and the heaviest got even heavier," said Cynthia Ogden, PhD, author of the paper and an NCHS epidemiologist.
Experts say the effort required to change these numbers will be great, especially to get anywhere near the Healthy People 2010 target of an obesity rate of less than 15%.
"To really turn this around is going to be like putting a man on the moon. It's going to take all of our agencies working together. And, if we could get that number down to even 20%, that would be a huge achievement," said Robert Kushner, MD, clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity in Chicago and president of the Obesity Society.
Experts also warn that unless drastic measures are taken and these trends continue, the personal and societal burden will be great. According to a paper published in the January Obesity analyzing NHANES data, 86.3% of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2030, and nobody will be of normal weight by 2048 if current weight trends continue. Related health care costs are estimated to grow to between $860.7 billion to $956.9 billion by 2030 and account for 16% to 18% of all medical expenditures.
Obesity and overweight has long been the subject of significant public health and medical society attention. The American Medical Association published "Assessment and Management of Adult Obesity" as part of its Roadmaps for Clinical Practice series in 2003 and convened the National Summit on Obesity Oct. 19-20, 2004.