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Prevalence of obesity: An upward curve

Difference by gender and race

Karen Miller
Prevalence of obesity: An upward curve
Photo credit: (Photo: Thinkstock moodboard)

The public health effort to reduce smoking has apparently paid off. Tobacco use among adults fell from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 15.5 percent in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The warning about obesity, however, has not had the same result. A recent study by researchers at Cleveland Clinic and New York University School of Medicine suggests that obesity is now a larger risk factor in preventable years of life lost than smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or more. The BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. For example, a man who is 6 feet two inches tall and weighs 237 pounds has a BMI of 30.4, and falls within the range of obesity. Although imperfect, the BMI is a good indicator of weight that is threatening to one’s health. Obesity is a major contributor to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, many types of cancer and even sleep apnea.

Several studies have shown a link between obesity and education and income. In general, wealthier and more educated people are less weighty. However, in a recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, that correlation does not always hold true when race and gender are added as factors. The CDC analyzed data from a sample of roughly 11,000 adults 20 years and older, who participated in a national survey on health and nutrition between 2011 and 2014.

In general, the prevalence of obesity was higher among women (38.3%), blacks (48.1%) and Hispanics (42.5%), but was significantly lower in those in the high income bracket and those with a college degree. When introducing gender and race, however, that relationship did not always hold true. For instance, obesity was significantly lower in higher income white women, but higher income black women were actually heavier than black women of less means although the differences were not significant. On the other hand, obesity was significantly lower in women of all races who were college graduates.

The story looked a little different for men. The pounds went up as income increased in Hispanic, white and Asian men, but the differences were slight. This pattern did not hold true for black males, however. Obesity was significantly higher among black men of higher income. A similar picture emerged for education. While those with a college degree were slimmer than or similar to those who finished high school or had some college, again the highest incidence of obesity in black men occurred in those with the highest level of education.

This wider girth should not be summarily dismissed. New studies suggest that the added pounds may contribute to a shorter life expectancy. Obesity is categorized as Class I, II and III, depending on weight. Class III obesity is labelled extreme or severe, and is exemplified by a person of average height who is 100 pounds overweight. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that extreme obesity resulted in years of life lost that ranged from six to almost 14 years depending on weight. The causes of death were predominantly due to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

In this country obesity ─ and especially extreme obesity ─ is on an upward slope. The economic burden is roughly $1.4 trillion according to a recent study by the Milken Institute. Shaving a few pounds can save lives as well as dollars.

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