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Last modified: Monday, July 24, 2006

U.S. adults losing ground in the battle of the bulge

July 24, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Adults in the United States have increasingly become overweight or obese in recent years, according to a national survey conducted for Indiana University, dispelling the notion of a plateau and injecting a note of urgency into efforts to help Americans achieve a healthier weight.

The study, appearing in the August Journal of the National Medical Association, found increasing rates of diabetes among U.S. adults and more direct links between excess weight and serious health conditions. When the statistics were adjusted for a variety of factors, including race, gender, age, income and education, adults who were obese or severely obese were still, respectively, 26 percent and 50 percent more likely to report also having a serious health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, hypertension, stroke, lung disease, asthma, thyroid disorders or kidney disease.

Overall, 63 percent of adults surveyed in 2005 were overweight or obese, compared to 58 percent in a comparable national survey conducted in 2001. In 2005, 8.5 percent of respondents reported having diabetes, compared to 7.9 percent in 2001. The national Healthy People 2010 plan calls for reducing the percentage of obese American adults to less than 15 percent by 2010, a goal that IU public health expert Dong-Chul Seo said is unlikely based on these recent findings.

"Our findings indicate that overall, American adults keep gaining weight," he said. "Despite the huge efforts and resources devoted to curbing the obesity epidemic, including government initiatives and media coverage, there is no sign of containment of the obesity epidemic among U.S. adults."

The survey data were drawn from the responses of 981 nationally representative adults and used body mass index to determine whether respondents were overweight (BMI of 25 or greater), obese (BMI of 30 or greater) or severely obese (BMI of 40 or greater). BMI is calculated using a person's weight and height (weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters) and provides a reliable indicator of body fatness for most people.

In addition to updating national estimates for overweight, obesity and diabetes, the study provides recent national estimates of the percentage of U.S. adults suffering from serious health problems (18 percent). Researchers also examined racial and gender differences involving obesity, finding significant differences between gender and between black and white women.

"There have been many attempts in the area of public health to change attitudes and perceptions related to obesity among minority populations with the hope that the resulting behavioral changes could narrow the racial/ethnic disparities in obesity," said Seo, assistant professor in IU's Department of Applied Health Science. "The current study indicates that this approach might not be effective."

Below are more findings from the study:

  • Racial disparities in obesity were observed among women, but not among men: 41 percent of black women were obese compared to 19 percent of white women.
  • 27 percent of obese respondents and 55 percent of severely obese respondents reported having serious health problems, compared to 13 percent of respondents with normal weight.
  • BMI decreased as educational attainment increased for women, but not for men. As a result, informational strategies might be more effective for women than for men.

Mohammad Torabi, chairman of IU's Department of Applied Health Science, is co-author of the study, "Racial/Ethnic Differences in Body Mass Index, Morbidity and Attitudes Toward Obesity Among U.S. Adults."

To speak with Seo or to receive a copy of the study, contact Tracy James, 812-855-0084 and