Half of America Will Be Obese in Just 10 Years, Study Warns

It is thought that around half the U.S. adult population will be obese by 2030, while one in four will fall into the severely obese category.

This is according to a new study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that levels of obesity are increasing in every state.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), around 40 percent of the U.S. adult population was obese in 2015-2016. But if current trends continue, the researchers predict over half the population in 29 states will have a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 30—considered obese—with several states approaching an obesity prevalence of 60 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, the study authors predict no state will have an obesity level below 35 percent.

Colorado and the District of Columbia, at 38.2 percent and 35.3 percent respectively, have the lowest projected rates.

"This means that we project that what will be the best states with the lowest obesity prevalence are going to be at the same level as some of the worst states now," said lead author Zachary Ward, programmer/analyst at Harvard Chan School's Center for Health Decision Science.

Even more concerning, he says, is the predicted rise in severe obesity, which is defined as a BMI above 35. That often works out at more than 100 pounds in excess weight.

It "used to be a rare condition," Ward told Newsweek, "but is quickly becoming the most common BMI category nationwide for women, non-Hispanic black adults, and adults with annual household income below $50,000."

Indeed, the projections show that levels of severe obesity could be higher than 25 percent in half of states.

"Especially striking was our finding that among adults with very low income (less than $20,000 per year), severe obesity is projected to be the most common BMI category in 44 states— virtually everywhere in the US," he added.

The projections are based on self-reported responses from more than 6.2 million U.S. adults collected as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSS) between 1993 and 2016.

man at new york intersection
A man stands at a New York intersection. New projections predict close to half the U.S. population will be obese by 2030. Robert Nickelsberg / Contributor/Getty

There are certain limitations to self-reporting, which have a tendency towards bias. A person might exaggerate or underplay certain behaviors, for example, to show themselves in a better light. To compensate, the researchers compared the answers to data from a nationally representative survey that collects height and weight measurements using standardized examination procedures—the BMI distributions from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The research was carried out to inform state policymakers—and perhaps help reverse the trend. The study authors say the best form of attack is prevention. Limiting intake of sugary drinks is highlighted as one of the most effective and cost-effective methods for reducing obesity levels, and a tax likely to save more money than it costs.

Sugar (and the sugar industry) has come under increasing fire for its role in promoting obesity. Indeed, one recent study published in September 2019 puts responsibility for today's obesity epidemic firmly on the shoulders of sugar, concluding high-sugar diets during childhood in the seventies and eighties could be behind the rise.

"We knew from previous work that obesity is increasing in the US, and that some states and demographic groups are at higher risk, but we were surprised that even the states with the lowest projected obesity prevalence in 2030 will be above 35 percent—a level currently considered high," Ward told Newsweek.

"What is clear is that we will not be able to treat our way out of this epidemic—achieving and maintaining weight loss is difficult—so prevention efforts will be key to making progress in this area."