Sharyn Saftler, Arivale Coach, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
The average American is nearly obese, according to the most recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey released by the CDC in late December. And, this growing normalization of obesity may only make the problem worse.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of the largest and longest nutritional studies in the United States, the average man in 1960 was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 166 pounds. Today, the average man is 5 feet 9 inches and 197 pounds. Similarly, for non-pregnant women the 1960 figures showed an average of 5 feet 3 and 140 pounds compared to today’s stats of 5 feet 4 inches and 170 pounds.
Given that weight has increased by roughly 30 pounds in both men and women since the 1960s without a similar increase in height, average BMI has also significantly increased – to 29.1 in men and 29.6 women, both close to the cutoff defined as “obese” (a BMI of 30).
As highlighted by NBC News, a growing Hispanic population may have impacted the findings. In 2016, 18 percent of the population was Hispanic, primarily Mexican-American. On average, Mexican-American adults are about 3 inches shorter than adults of other ethnic backgrounds in the United States but have similar weight. This means Mexican-Americans have the highest average BMI of any of the ethnic groups studied: 30.2 for men and 31.9 for women. This is a shift from earlier surveys where African-American women had the highest BMI.
This latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows we continue to have a significant problem. Given the healthcare cost and quality of life impacts of obesity, a concerted effort involving policy-makers and healthcare providers is desperately needed.
Part of the problem is the growing normalization of obesity. If the “average” American is nearly obese, then it becomes the new normal, which can make it harder for people to find motivation to engage in the hard work of weight loss. This problem is further compounded by sociopolitical movements, such as the “anti-dieting” movement, that deny the very real suffering and health problems experienced by many people with obesity. And, sadly, the higher BMIs in African-American and Mexican-American populations contribute to existing health disparities in these groups.
In terms of human biology, however, being obese is not “normal.” Our genes evolved in ancient times when food supplies were unpredictable and physical activity levels were high. We are well suited to survive by conserving calories (aka storing fat) to support us during times of famine. Unfortunately, in today’s world where calories are abundant and physical activity isn’t a daily requirement, these genetics don’t serve us well.
Although the modern environment may have induced the obesity epidemic, the best way to counteract that is through individual choice. Setting up your personal environment so your available food choices are high in nutrients but low in calories (think fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and incorporating physical activity into your daily life are key to both weight loss and avoiding ongoing weight gain.
Unfortunately, making the personal choices that could reduce weight gain may not be a possibility for some individuals. A recent study shows poverty, food insecurity, and rural versus urban living are associated with greater risks for obesity. A broader social and political solution is needed.
As we start 2019, I hope we collectively resolve to not let obesity become the new normal, whether that requires personal or political choices. Don’t buy into the myths that weight loss isn’t possible, nor into those who tell you that being overweight is somehow “your fault.” Hopefully, this latest CDC report will be a wakeup call that will start to turn the tide.
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[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]