Overweight in America

Well over half of American adults are overweight — a startling 65.7 percent of those over the age of twenty. Of that number, 30.6 percent are considered obese. In 1980, only 47 percent of adults were considered too heavy. What has happened in the past quarter century to make people pack on the pounds?

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted each year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, takes a look at the health and dietary habits of Americans. In 1971, the survey found that only 4 percent of children ages six to eleven and 6 percent of those age twelve to nineteen were considered overweight. That number has steadily risen. The most recent NHANES data (2001–2002) reports that 16.5 percent of kids between the ages of six and nineteen are overweight, with another 31.5 percent at risk of becoming overweight.


Weight is not just a U.S. problem. As documented in its May 2004 report to the World Health Organization, the International Obesity Task Force found that one in ten children around the world — over 155 million — are overweight or obese. The prevalence is rising in both developed and developing countries, and so is the risk of weight-related conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

More men (and boys) than women (and girls) are overweight, in part due to their physical build. (In 2000, 16 percent of boys were overweight versus 14.5 percent of girls.) As a general rule, after puberty, men carry more muscle mass, which is heavier and more metabolically active (that is, burns more calories) than fat tissue, than women do.

Ethnicity can also impact weight. African-American and Hispanic children and teens have a higher rate of weight problems than do Caucasian children. Those trends don't necessarily carry into adulthood; fewer African-American men are overweight than Caucasian men. Yet both male and female Hispanic adults continue to have a higher incidence of weight problems than Caucasian men and women. So do African-American women, who are also at the highest risk for obesity.

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