10 Numbers Outlining America’s Obesity Epidemic

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The number of obese Americans has risen dramatically in recent years, prompting the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to label the trend an “obesity epidemic.” While some have questioned the use of that term to describe the situation, there is no question that the growing number of obese children and adults poses problems on a couple of levels. First, being overweight puts individuals at risk for conditions such as high blood pressure, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. On a national scale, the obesity epidemic threatens a health care system already beset by rising costs, and is presenting challenges in many different areas, from travel and fashion to national defense. Here are 10 numbers that illustrate the extent of this epidemic.

The growing number of obese Americans poses numerous challenges to both individuals and the country as a whole.

The number of obese Americans has risen dramatically in the past decade; Malingering/Flickr


Percentage of Americans over age 20 who are obese

The Centers for Disease Control defines obesity as an individual with a Body Mass Index of at least 30. Calculated using your height and weight, BMI is a good indicator of your body fat in most cases (professional athletes and others who carry around an unusual amount of muscle are a notable exception). There are slightly more women who are obese than men, at 35.8 percent and 35.5 percent respectively; however, the number of obese men as a percentage has grown from 27.5 percent in 1999-2000, while the number of obese women grew only negligibly (from 35.5 percent) during that period. (Here’s a CDC BMI calculator to determine your Body Mass Index.)


$147 billion

Annual medical costs associated with obesity in the U.S.

These costs, an estimate as of 2008, now account for almost 10 percent of all medical spending. A decade earlier, the CDC reported that obesity-related expenses totaled $78.5 billion. It’s also estimated that if you’re obese, the medical expenses associated with your care will exceed that of your normal-weight counterpart by more than $1,400 annually.



Estimated percentage of potential U.S. Army recruits rejected for being overweight

This figure comes courtesy of retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who spoke publicly in 2009 about how the weight crisis is affecting the military. What’s more, he said of the 25 percent who were accepted, some 65 percent couldn’t pass a fitness test on the first day. And we’re not talking a hardcore, G.I. Jane-style workout here; we’re talking about teens and young adults who couldn’t run, jump, roll, etc., all essential qualities for combat situations. Among existing troops, the change in the number of obese troops in the past 15 years is dramatic; Armed Forces Health reports obesity among its active ranks has more than tripled in that timeframe. While this is a controversial subject matter, with the argument being made that service-related injuries are to blame for some of this weight gain, in 2012 more than 1,600 troops were dismissed because of failed fitness tests related to their obesity.



The dress size today of a dress that would have been a size 8 in the 1950s

In other words, a woman who wore a size 8 in the 1950s, and a woman who had the same measurements today, would now wear a 00, due to the clothing phenomenon known as vanity sizing. As women’s waistlines have expanded, dress sizes have perplexingly diminished. Manufacturers aren’t stupid. They began to appeal to women’s vanity by affixing a smaller number to a bigger garment. An obvious figure that comes up frequently in discussions about vanity sizing is Marilyn Monroe. And, while the legendary screen siren reportedly wore anywhere from a size 12 to a size 16, the distinction is these are 1950s-era sizes. That’s a big difference. An individual with her measurements, including an unusually small (even for the time period) 22-inch waist, would be comfortable in a 4 or even a 0 in jeans, depending on the brand.



Weight in pounds of the average American man

This figure is in stark contrast to the 166.3 pounds his predecessor weighed in 1960. Today, the average American woman weighs as much as the average 1960s-era man, at slightly more than 166 pounds. By comparison, her 1960 counterpart weighed around 140 pounds. Granted, we collectively are around 1 inch taller, but that comparatively small increase in height is disproportionate to the amount of weight gained in the last 50 years.



Percentage of U.S. children, ages 6-11, that are obese

Even among the very young, ages 2 to 5, obesity is a problem, impacting more than 12 percent of those children. For children of all ages, ages 2 to 19, the obesity rate was just under 17 percent.



Estimated years a person loses if they’re 100-plus pounds over their ideal weight

Even if you are characterized as simply “obese” and not “extremely obese” — meaning you weigh at least 40 pounds over your ideal weight — you’ll lose an estimated three years from your life. Researchers from England’s Oxford University who analyzed 57 studies involving more than 900,000 residents in the U.S. and Europe over a 10- to 15-year period found that, for every 5-point increase in BMI, one’s risk of premature death grew by about 30 percent. Even those individuals who didn’t fall into the “obese” category but were overweight, with a BMI of at least 25 but under 30, had their lives cut short by a year due to obesity-related conditions like heart disease and stroke. Researchers likened fat’s impact on the body to what smoking does to a lifelong addict, as that habit also takes an estimated 10 years off your life.



Miles per gallon standard set by President Obama for cars sold in the U.S. in 2025

The correlation between this number and overweight Americans may not be readily apparent, but some observers believe there is a direct correlation between the ability of automakers to meet this goal and the growing number of overweight and obese people. Simply put, one of the easiest ways to increase fuel economy is to make smaller, lighter cars. But heavier people feel uncomfortable squeezing into smaller cars, making them less likely to buy the more fuel-efficient models. And a car full of heavier individuals also affects actual fuel economy, if not the official EPA “sticker” estimate.



U.S. airlines requiring obese passengers to buy an extra seat or wait for later flight

This has been a controversial issue in the airline industry, but illustrates just how our mundane tasks of life are changing due to obesity. The standard airline seat size is around 17 inches wide. AirfareWatchdog.com lists the major airlines’ policies regarding obese passengers. If you can’t fit comfortably into your seat with the armrest down, in all likelihood you’ll have to buy a neighboring seat or, if the flight is full and no additional side-by-side seats are available, you’ll have to wait for a later flight with such seating options.



Waist size that raises a man’s risk of health problems

Women are at greater risk of early death if their waist measures 35 inches or more. While much has been made of BMI, other research has highlighted the importance of fat distribution. A pear shape, where fat tends to accumulate around the thighs and waist, may not be ideal by designers’ standards, but it’s healthier than an apple shape. That’s because researchers have linked the abdominal fat associated with the apple shape to higher cholesterol numbers, greater inflammation and insulin resistance. The theory is that this type of fat is the dreaded visceral kind, collecting around the organs in the abdomen, contributing to the aforementioned conditions.


Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.