New Data on Obesity, and The News Isn't Good

By Ruth Kava — Aug 04, 2016
The latest anthropometric data from NHANES have been released — and the picture isn't pretty. Over a period of approximately 20 years, both men and women have added weight, especially around the middle.
shutterstock_209851909 Button-buster Belly via Shutterstock

For many years now, the news has covered the increase in obesity in the US (and around the world, actually). With all the attention being paid, one might think people would try to deal with this issue. Unfortunately, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), we're not doing too well.

The NCHS just released its latest report on anthropometric data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). These are measurements made on a representative sample of Americans — from 2 years of age up — including height, weight, waist circumference and a myriad of other bodily attributes. But it's the weight that is concerning. If you compare the measures in the table below, the issue becomes clear.

Measure NHANES

1988-94   2011-14


1988-94   2011-14



Weight (lb) 152 169 181 196
Height (in) 64 64 69 69
Waist Circumference (in) 35 38 37 40
BMI 27 27 29 29

Using the 1988-94 NHANES data for comparison, the data for the 2011-14 NHANES iteration show that for both women and men over 20 years of age  the average body weight has increased substantially. And this is not because American adults have gotten taller in that interim — no, the average heights stayed the same. What's even more concerning is the increase in waist circumference for both men and women in this 20-23 year interval.

Increased waist circumference is concerning primarily because it is thought to be an indication of abdominal fat — fat that is deposited around the internal organs — which is associated with an increased risk of metabolic illness.

The fact that the BMIs (Body Mass Index) didn't change when weight did points to how blunt an instrument BMI must be considered. Since both men and women had been and remained in the overweight category,  if one were to use just that index to assess changes in weight status, it would be deceiving.

These average figures are bad enough, but when they are broken down, some demographics have added even more. For example, the overall weight gain for women was 17 pounds, but for non-Hispanic black women it was nearly 22 pounds.

I'm sure statisticians will find much more in this extensive volume of data, but the message is clear — whatever we've been doing to counter this trend hasn't been enough.

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