The U.S. obesity prevalence increased from 13% to 32% between the 1960s and 2004, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Human Nutrition.  

Some minority and low-socioeconomic-status groups—such as non-Hispanic black women and children, Mexican-American women and children, low-socioeconomic-status black men and white women and children, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders—are disproportionately affected. The analysis was published in the 2007 annual issue of the journal Epidemiologic Reviews.  

“The obesity rate in the United States has increased at an alarming rate over the past three decades,” says Youfa Wang, MD, PhD (left), lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of International Health. “We set out to estimate the average annual increase in prevalence, as well as the variation between population groups, to predict the future situation regarding obesity and overweight among U.S. adults and children. Obesity is a public-health crisis. If the rate of obesity and overweight continues at this pace, by 2015, 75% of adults and nearly 24% of U.S. children and adolescents will be overweight or obese.”  

The study’s key findings include the following statistics:  

  • 66% of U.S. adults were overweight or obese in 2003–2004.
  • Women ages 20–34 had the fastest increase in rate of obesity and overweight.
  • 80% of black women 40 and older are overweight; 50% are obese.
  • Asians have a lower obesity prevalence when compared to other ethnic groups, but those born in the United States are four times more likely to be obese than their foreign-born counterparts.
  • Less educated people have a higher prevalence of obesity than their counterparts, with the exception of black women.
  • Southeast states have a higher prevalence of obesity than those on the West Coast, Midwest and Northeast.
  • 16% of children and adolescents are overweight, and 34% were at risk of becoming overweight in 2003–2004.
  • White children and adolescents had the lowest prevalence of overweight and risk of overweight compared with their black and Mexican counterparts.  

“Our analysis showed patterns of obesity or overweight for various groups of Americans,” says coauthor May A. Beydoun, a postdoctoral fellow. “All groups consistently increased in obesity or overweight prevalence, but the increase varied by group, making this public-health issue complex. More research needs to be completed to look into the underlying causes. Obesity is likely to continue to increase and, if nothing is done, it will soon become the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”  

In a related study, the Johns Hopkins coauthors published a research article in the May 7 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It found that people purchase foods based on their income level and perception of a food’s health benefit and cost. Ethnicity, gender and environmental factors also affect people’s food choices.

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