Obesity rates have more than doubled in adults and children since the 1970’s (National Center for Health Statistics, 2009). While recent estimates suggest that the overall rates of obesity have plateaued or even declined among some groups, obesity is widespread and continues to be a leading public health problem in the U.S. (Flegal et al., 2016; Ogden et al., 2016; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2016; Wen et al., 2012). In addition, severe obesity is a serious and increasing problem among children, adolescents, and adults (Flegal et al., 2016; Fryar et al., 2012; Ogden et al., 2016; Skinner & Skelton, 2014). Plus, substantial disparities exist based on demographics (e.g., race-ethnicity, gender), geographic region, and socioeconomic status (SES).
Adult Obesity in the U.S.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese (Flegal et al., 2016). In general, rates of obesity are higher for Black and Hispanic women than White women, higher for Black and Hispanic men than White men, higher in the South and Midwest, and tend to increase with age (Flegal et al., 2016; Gregg et al., 2009; Sherry et al., 2010). Research also shows that the heaviest Americans have become even heavier the past decade (Beydoun & Wang, 2009).
Recent national data show that 57.2 percent of Black women and 46.9 percent of Hispanic women are obese compared to 38.2 percent of White women (Flegal et al., 2016). Severe obesity continues to be higher among women (9.9 percent) than men (5.5 percent), especially among Black women who have approximately double the rates of severe obesity as White and Hispanic women (16.8 percent versus 9.7 percent and 8.7 percent) (Flegal et al., 2016). Rates of obesity are slightly higher for Black men (38.0 percent) and Hispanic men (37.9 percent) compared to White men (34.7 percent) (Flegal et al., 2016).
The table below highlights these and other selected data on adult obesity and severe obesity from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
U.S. Age-Adjusted Prevalence of Adult Obesity and Severe Obesity (NHANES 2013-2014)
Source: Flegal, K. M., Kruszon-Moran, D., Carroll, M. D., Fryar, C. D., & Ogden, C. L. (2016). Trends in obesity among adults in the United States, 2005 to 2014. JAMA, 315(21), 2284-2291.
Childhood and Adolescent Obesity in the U.S.
One in six children and adolescents are obese in the U.S. (Ogden et al., 2016). About 15 percent of low-income preschoolers are obese (Pan et al., 2012). Obesity rates tend to be higher and have increased more rapidly over time among Black and Hispanic children than White children (Freedman et al., 2006; Ogden et al., 2012; Ogden et al., 2016). The prevalence is also higher among children living in the Southern region of the U.S. (e.g., Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky) (Singh et al., 2008).
Based on recent national figures, 15.1 percent of White girls are obese compared to 20.7 percent of Black and 21.4 percent of Hispanic girls (Ogden et al., 2016). About 22 percent of Hispanic boys are obese, compared to 18.4 percent and 14.3 percent of Black and White boys, respectively (Ogden et al., 2016). Rates are the highest, and very alarming, for 6-11 year old Hispanic boys (25.8 percent are obese) and 12-19 year old Black girls (24.4 percent are obese) (Ogden et al., 2016).
While little national data are available on Native American children, several studies have found substantially higher obesity rates compared to the national average and other racial-ethnic groups (Gordon & Oddo, 2012; Smith et al., 2009; Zephier et al., 2006). For example, obesity rates are twice as high for Native American preschoolers than for White or Asian preschoolers (Anderson & Whitaker, 2009). In addition, while obesity risk tends to rise among adult immigrants as they become more acculturated to the American diet and health behaviors (Singh et al., 2011), there is evidence that children of the least acculturated immigrants have a greater risk of obesity than children of natives or settled immigrants, especially among boys, Whites, and Hispanics (Van Hook et al., 2009).
The following table provides some of the most recent data on child and adolescent obesity from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
U.S. Prevalence of Child and Adolescent Obesity and Severe Obesity (NHANES 2013-2014)
BMI >/= 95th percentile
|2-5 year olds||8.9%||1.7%|
|6-11 year olds||17.5%||5.6%|
|12-19 year olds||20.5%||7.8%|
2-19 years old
2-19 years old
Source: Ogden C. L., Carroll, M. D., Lawman, H. G., Fryar, C. D., Kruszon-Moran, D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal K. M. (2016). Trends in obesity prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States, 1988-1994 through 2013-2014. JAMA, 315(21), 2292-2299.