Obesity in the
United States

New data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows over 40% of adults and nearly 20% of kids and teens in the U.S. are now obese. These numbers are more than worrying and are a primary wake-up call and a sign that something needs to be done to turn things around. Fortunately, researchers are working hard to have a better understanding of what’s causing this crisis, how obesity affects the average American’s health, and the viable solutions to it all.

Let’s dig into the details.

What is Obesity?

Obesity comes about when you have too much body fat built up – enough that it starts to affect your health negatively. Most physicians use BMI and body mass index to measure obesity. BMI is the ratio of your weight to your height.

A BMI of 30 or higher means you’ve crossed over into obesity territory. There are different classes of obesity, too, based on how tall you are over 30.

An overweight BMI falls between 25 and 29.9. Being overweight isn’t as risky as having obesity, but it still raises your chances of health problems.
Obesity in the United States

Obesity Numbers and Trends in the US

Here’s where we’re at obesity-wise around the U.S. today:

Downward Trends

The U.S. records a high number of child obesity rates in comparison to other developed countries. The numbers are among the highest in the world, with the country in 12th place. These numbers are way above the average OECD.

The data shows the urgent need for American citizens to take action against obesity nationwide. But based on these trends, the average American may need help to afford decent healthcare services if these numbers keep rising.  Hence, the rise of GLP-1 medication in the recent years. To prevent this, it is the best way to implement the policies and programs put in place by the government to avert unhealthy lifestyles.

Underlying Causes of Obesity

Obesity is a complex condition with no single cause. Multiple factors that shape our environments and behaviors interact to drive the obesity epidemic. These include:

Diet Quality and Calories

Today’s food trend and system advocates for excess consumption of unhealthy foods, from sugar-laden foods, and fatty foods, to salt-laden pre-processed foods. In the U.S., this trend is more prevalent, with the unhealthy diet winning over healthy foods.
An example is that most people’s intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and some healthy food falls drastically below the recommended levels.
Our daily diets provide too many calories and too few nutrients. This imbalance can readily lead to weight gain over time.

Food Environment and Access

For many Americans, barriers exist to accessing affordable, nutritious foods. Food deserts and food swamps dominate many lower-income neighborhoods, making healthy eating difficult.
On the other hand, energy-dense processed and fast foods are cheap and readily available in these communities.
Improving access to and affordability of fresh produce and healthy groceries is key to transforming our food environment.

Physical Inactivity

A mere 25% of American adults adhere to the recommended physical activity standards, which call for an average of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Instead, sedentary lifestyles have become a habit. For instance, individuals now spend over 8 hours a day seated.
Lack of physical activity reduces daily calorie expenditure while causing slow metabolic processes that promote fat storage.

Genetics and Family History

While not entirely deterministic, genetics and family histories do play a role in obesity risk. Some individuals are predisposed to gain weight more easily due to biological challenges in regulating hunger/satiety or metabolism. Still, behavioral and environmental interventions can help those with greater genetic susceptibility maintain a healthy weight.

Sleep Habits

Both sleep duration and sleep quality have been associated with obesity risk. Getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep or having untreated sleep apnea can dysregulate hormones controlling hunger and satiety. Prioritizing and improving sleep duration and quality through behavior change and medical treatment may aid weight management.

Effects of Medications and Health Conditions

Some medications like steroids, antidepressants, and seizure meds can make you want to eat more and cause weight gain. Also, some health problems like polycystic ovarian syndrome, PCOS, Cushing’s disease, and hypothyroidism can make you put on some extra pounds.
In such cases, treating the underlying condition when possible and making appropriate medication adjustments can help with unexplained weight gain.

Socioeconomic Factors and Healthcare Inequities

Poverty, discrimination, and unequal access to medical care and other resources create barriers to achieving a healthy weight, especially in marginalized racial/ethnic communities. Improving economic opportunities and healthcare access while also addressing systemic biases is needed.

Health Risks and Costs of Obesity

The risks that accompany obesity are very serious and even scary. Here are some examples to look out for:

Type 2 Diabetes

Obesity increases your chances of getting diabetes. We’re talking over 90% of folks with diabetes are dealing with excess weight. That extra body fat leads to insulin resistance and whacky high blood sugar levels, which is diabetes in a nutshell. Even losing a moderate amount of weight can make a huge difference in controlling diabetes and avoiding complications. Many people with diabetes are taking GLP-1 medications such as Victoza and Trulicity to manage their blood glucose. 

Cardiovascular Disease

All that extra weight stresses your cardiovascular system, leading to heart complications. Obesity is tied to:
Dropping some pounds improves cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease.


Thirteen different kinds of cancer are more likely with obesity, which is not a good thing. Some of the big ones include
Some possible reasons involve metabolic dysfunction and chronic inflammation from too much fat tissue.

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

About 75% of obese folks have this condition where fat builds up in liver cells, and it can progress to cirrhosis and liver failure. Losing at least 10% of weight may help resolve the fat accumulation and inflammation.

Chronic Kidney Disease

Obesity-related diabetes and high blood pressure are major causes of CKD. But, excess weight itself also leads to kidney disease through inflammation and other mechanisms, even without diabetes or hypertension.

Impact your Quality of Life

In addition to the elevated risks of medical complications, obesity often negatively impacts mental health and quality of life, including:

Obesity seriously impacts people’s quality of life as most obese folks often have trouble with physical functioning, and some report worse overall health-related quality of life.

Worse? The medical costs of treating all those obesity-related diseases are crazy! We’re talking around $173 billion annually, making up nearly 10% of all healthcare spending. That’s an insane chunk of change.

For one person, being obese can make their annual healthcare costs jump by $1,861 on average compared to someone at a healthy weight. The financial burden on top of the health impacts shows why obesity is such a significant public health crisis.

Solutions and Interventions

With obesity exacting high individual and societal costs, impactful solutions are needed at all levels. Some of these solutions are:

Individual Changes

Physicians should initiate respectful conversations with patients about weight status and work collaboratively to set diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress management goals tailored to the patient’s needs and preferences. Even a 5-10% weight loss confers meaningful health benefits. Referral to nutritionists or comprehensive weight loss programs may provide further support.

Healthcare System Programs

Insurers should cover, and healthcare systems should provide evidence-based obesity treatment options, including:
Just as treatment is covered for other chronic diseases, comprehensive obesity care should be accessible and affordable for all patients.

Community and Environment

Local governments can implement policies to promote healthier behaviors. Ensuring underserved neighborhoods have access to:

Policy Interventions

These include evidence-based policies like sugary beverage taxes to reduce consumption of empty calories, implementing nutrition education curricula in schools, financing grocery stores offering fresh produce in food deserts, and running obesity prevention public health media campaigns.

Health Equity Efforts

We must address disparities in healthcare access, income, and other social determinants that disproportionately predispose lower-income and minority groups to obesity.


The obesity epidemic continues to worsen, taking an immense toll on population health. Reversing obesity trends will require major changes to policies, systems, and environments that shape our lifestyles and access to nutritious, affordable food.
Additionally, reducing glaring health disparities is an urgent priority. That means implementing comprehensive, evidence-based solutions that will place the communities on the path toward a healthier future. This will demand both sustained efforts and patience.
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