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Rising obesity rates in the US: What’s working and what’s not?

Despite federal initiatives to fight US obesity, rates continue to rise - especially among black and Hispanic women, says a new study.

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    First lady Michelle Obama does a bunny hop dance with pre-schoolers at the Penacook Community Center in Concord, N.H., in March 2012 as part of her Let's Move initiative.
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The rate of obesity is still rising among US adults, despite assumptions that obesity rates had leveled off. Now almost 38 percent of adults are obese, compared to 32 percent a decade earlier, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Wednesday. But the study also showed signs of progress among American toddlers.

Not only is obesity still rising in America, but the study indicated that women have now overtaken men as the most obese demographic. While obesity rates over the past decade have mostly been equivalent between genders, the obesity rate for women has risen to 38 percent, compared with 34 percent of men.

And the study’s lead author, CDC’s Dr. Cynthia Ogden, says black and Hispanic women are driving the growing gender gap.

While the obesity rates for white men and women remain parallel, black females have reached a 57 percent obesity rate, compared to black males’ rate of 38 percent. The obesity rate of Hispanic women has also soared above their male counterpart, with 46 percent of women compared to 39 percent of men.

The CDC measures obesity by calculating Body Mass Index, a ratio of weight to height. 

But some experts, such as the University of North Carolina’s Dr. Barry Popkin, are not convinced about the study’s reliability.

Dr. Popkin said the participants selected for the study are probably not representative of the nation as a whole, because it is difficult to make national conclusions based off of a relatively small survey. This study has about 5,000 participants each year – far fewer participants than most other federal surveys regarding weight.

But the CDC study also showed signs of improvement with the obesity rate of toddlers. The percent of obese children between the ages of 2 and 5 has decreased from 14 percent in 2000, to eight percent in the 2011-2012 survey.

For young people ages 2 to 19, the rate has been holding at about 17 percent over the past decade or so.

The rate of soda consumption has also decreased in recent years, as fast food chains incorporate higher quality menus. But America’s struggle against obesity is ongoing.

New federal rules, such as requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts and removing artificial trans fats from grocery store foods, have been adopted but not yet widely implemented.

And federal objectives, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign launched in 2011 to target childhood obesity, have received some pushback at the state level. In Texas this summer, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, lifted a decade-old statewide ban on deep fryers and soda machines in schools, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

Although 16 percent of Texas high school students were obese in 2013, Mr. Miller says it shouldn’t be a governmental concern. “This isn’t about French Fries – it’s about Freedom. I believe we need fewer state and federal mandates and more local control,” he said.

Some state officials also feel that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Schools Act, pushed through Congress by Mrs. Obama in 2010, is yet another example of federal idealism confronting state-level reality, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

“Most Americans don’t like intrusive government, especially at this moment,” reported The Monitor’s John Feehery last year. “I can’t see how Washington telling the American people that they can’t have snack foods or hold bake sales is going to put them in any better of a mood.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story

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