Two separate studies are reporting a mix of good, bad, and in between when it comes to obesity in the United States.
However, overall, they show little progress has been made in tackling this particular health problem.
An accompanying editorial to the two studies says the news is “neither good nor surprising,” and calls for a different approach to the public health crisis.
Both studies and the editorial were published online today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Women and Children
Based on data from a 2013-2014 survey of 5,455 adults, researchers found that 35 percent of men were obese and 5 percent were morbidly obese. Among women, 40 percent were obese and almost 10 percent were morbidly obese.
“These prevalences are unchanged since 2005 among men and represent a slight increase in obesity among women,” write Drs. Jody Zylke and Howard Bauchner in the accompanying editorial. “The data for children are similar.”
The 2011-2014 survey of 7,017 children and teens 2 to 19 years old shows that the prevalence of obesity among this age group was 17 percent, and the prevalence of extreme obesity was almost 6 percent.
The researchers found that obesity among children and teens increased from 1988 to 2004, but held steady after that year.
A closer look shows that not every age group is faring equally well.
Among children aged 2 to 5 years, obesity rates have dropped since the 2003-2004 survey. For 6- to 11-year-olds, obesity has leveled off since 2007-2008. But obesity among teens has been rising since 1988.
The data comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an annual survey of American adults and children that is representative of the country’s population.
Obesity status was based on body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using measured height and weight.
The Struggle for Explanations
Even though the trends in obesity for adults and children seem clear, researchers struggle to explain why they are happening.
“Although there has been considerable speculation about the causes of the increases in obesity prevalence, data are lacking to show the causes of these trends,” writes Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., of the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her colleagues, in the paper on obesity trends among adults.
The authors also write that there is little data to explain why obesity in a population speeds up, slows down, or stops.
Similar increases in obesity have been seen in other countries, although some countries have seen a of the rise in obesity. This has occurred in adults as well as children.
Some researchers suggest the obesity slowdown in some countries may be due to an increase in physical activity, and a decline in television watching and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
One thing that is clear is if obesity is left unchecked it will have both long- and short-term health consequences.
Obesity is linked to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. A study earlier this year, published in JAMA, also found that obesity is one of the strongest factors contributing to shortened lifespans.
Prevention Is Needed
The authors of the editorial point out that millions of dollars have been spent trying to slow down the obesity epidemic.
This includes funding for obesity research and clinical trials, the development of new drugs and devices, and obesity programs at hospitals and in the community.
In addition, governmental agencies, foundations, communities, schools, and others have all come together to tackle this problem.
With little success, at least in the United States.
Ongoing genetics research may one day provide a clue as to why some people can lose weight easily and others can’t. But that will take a long time for results.
“More immediate solutions are needed. The emphasis has to be on prevention,” writes Zylke.
The editorial authors write that obesity prevention should start in the womb because some research suggests that obesity in pregnant women is linked to elevated weight in the infant.
And children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults.
But children don’t eat in isolation. So parents need to be brought on board with healthy eating. And even that is not always as simple as it seems.
“Although some aspects of obesity prevention are a matter of individual responsibility, families need help,” writes Zylke.
Doctors and scientists can help by providing the best dietary guidelines for families on what foods to eat and how much of that food to eat — and minimizing confusing nutritional information.
Even then, unless families grow all their own food, they are plugged into a complex food ecosystem consisting of farmers, food manufacturers, restaurants, supermarkets, and corner markets.
Which means that solving the obesity epidemic will require much broader involvement of these groups.
“Perhaps it is time for an entirely different approach,” writes Zylke, “one that emphasizes collaboration with the food and restaurant industries that are in part responsible for putting food on dinner tables.”