The State of Obesity in America

Diana Keeler
by Diana Keeler
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The State of Obesity in America

You know how it goes: A study comes out, ranking each state in terms of its levels of obesity. Colorado gets smug, Mississippi gets defensive, and all the states end up grumbling at each other. This year, according to the 2013 figures newly available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we all have something to dislike. For the first time ever, not a single state had an obesity rate of under 20%. (The CDC defines being as obese as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.) The most-fit state—yes, still Colorado—clocked in with 21.3% of its population categorized as obese; Hawaii was a close second, at 21.8%. Meanwhile, West Virginia has joined Mississippi in last place: The two states tied, at 35.1%.

Numbers are just numbers, but here’s a startling fact: The first time the CDC published these figures for all 50 states was in 1995—and at that time, not a single state had an obese population of more than 19%. When this data was first collected in 1990 (not all states participated), “10 states had a prevalence of obesity less than 10% and no states had prevalence equal to or greater than 15%.” Over the next 25 years, those numbers would continue to climb.

By 2000, not a single state had an obesity rate of under 10%—but neither did any state have an obese population over 25%. Ten years later, in 2010, no state had a rate of obesity under 20%, and 12 states had an obese population over 30%.

If you were looking for a silver lining here, prepare to be disappointed. Now, 20 states have obese populations over 30%, and two—West Virginia and Mississippi—have just crawled across the finish line marking 35%. Of course, there’s more than enough bad news to go around. Regionally, the South fared worst, at 30.2%, but only barely. The Midwest now rates at 30.1%. The West did best, at 24.9%, while the Northeast found itself in the middle, at 26.5%.

But there’s no room for bragging rights here. Even our healthiest populations now claim obesity rates that would have had medical experts freaking out with worry just a generation ago.

How did your state weigh in? What are you doing to help your community battle the bulge? Share in the comments below!

Map: Centers for Disease Control

About the Author

Diana Keeler
Diana Keeler

Diana Keeler has written about travel, health, and adventure for The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Outside, and other outlets. She’s run two marathons and done P90X on five continents—but still struggles to cut fried shrimp from her diet. She once drove from London to Mongolia in a 1990 Nissan Micra; for reports and pretty pictures from some less demanding trips, follow her on Twitter and Instagram


30 responses to “The State of Obesity in America”

  1. Avatar Joshua Cables says:

    Wow… The state the country is in…

  2. Avatar Kristopher Schmetzer says:

    Where does Pawnee rank?

  3. Avatar SusanYounkin says:

    I think it’s important to remember that the definition of obesity changed in 1998 to reflect a similar approach as the WHO’s definition of obesity. The 1990 and 1995 statistics used the previous American definition and therefore don’t accurately reflect what the article is suggesting. I’m always a bit disappointed when an article like this comes out and doesn’t even mention the change.

    • Avatar uniquename72 says:

      Honestly, the definition changed to reflect reality. And that change still has nothing to do with the *drastic* change from 2000-2010.

  4. Avatar southernseas says:

    I don’t think we need articles anymore to know America has become obese. Just look around. When you fly in from traveling overseas it’s shocking and saddening to see the difference.

    • Avatar Leah Silver Graves says:

      I agree! I just came back from a vacation to Germany last week. We enjoyed amazing food quality while dining out (and at cheaper prices than the US for gourmet food). Everywhere we traveled to we saw tons of people biking and walking. One day we walked by a school playground and it was clear that *everyone* walked or biked to school (even the teachers) from the huge number of bikes parked there. Not a single kid on the playground was overweight. Overall from the small villages to the large cities–most people were fit and trim!

      • Avatar Amber says:

        Same, I’ve visited The Netherlands 3 times and I saw maybe 2 or 3 overweight people per trip, not even obese, just chubby. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, I even scared a little Dutch girl (she was maybe 3-4), she looked horrified when she turned the corner and saw me. It was funny, but at the same time, kind of sobering. Everyone bikes where they need to go, every train station I went to had a sea of bicycles instead of a parking lot full of cars.

        Food was always high quality and affordable, we spent less than $300 for 2 people for a whole month of food, including junk food and snack bar food. And even though I did eat junk there, I lost weight on all of my trips.

  5. Avatar Sarah says:

    Also important to note that this is self-reported data, and we know how often people lie about their weight. I remember reading a study a couple years ago that the midwest may actually be heavier than the south, but the study showed midwesterners were more likely to lie about how heavy they were than southerners, and that may skew the results too.

  6. Avatar Bea Wyatt says:

    It is also important to note in the age of electronic medical records, and data collection, those are items that physicians must now report. It is not that we havn’t always had overweight people, it is just reported more and the standard has changed.

  7. Avatar Atro says:

    I would like to see one of these of Europe. It is getting pretty bad here too

  8. Avatar Amber says:

    I’m shocked that NC (my home state) isn’t higher than yellow. Maybe my area is just particularly obese because seeing a thin person is like spotting Bigfoot.

  9. Avatar Scottyspearl says:

    No one is talking about why… My grand parents ate eggs fried in bacon grease every day and chain smoked filter-less cigarettes from age eleven, and still had better health than the average person today. They cooked everything in lard. So what is going on?

    Anyone who has netflix and has taken time to watch Food Inc, or Frankensteer should have a good idea why and yet no one is doing anything about it. I fear for my children. The point where it discusses the sad fact that our children’s life expectancy, for the first time in history, has actually gone down… We need to do something fast.

    • Avatar carole henrichs says:

      Simple, people are eating more fast food than ever. People in my state get food stamps and these places accept EBT. I have shopped in Walmart and you wouldn’t believe what people are purchasing…Junk, junk, junk food..pop, chips, sugared cereal,Hostess & Little Debbie’s sickening.

    • Avatar Cinderella says:

      I agree with you. Food Inc was super scary. However, I also think our grandparents and parents worked hard. My Dad worked with his hands from 13 on their farm. Kids played outside. Parents labored and then played outside and ate real food. Now we have a service based industry and many of those labor jobs are desk jobs. I sit at a desk all day most days. I sometimes wish I could have a more labor intensive job just so I could get exercise while working! But the pay is so small!

      • Avatar Nester1984 says:

        Not all jobs that are hands on and give you exercise have small pay. I am an automotive master technician and my pay checks are higher than some of my friends that work desk jobs and have masters degrees. Plus I get exercise at work. It’s a win win!

    • Avatar BuzzPreston says:

      What is going on? Most of the health authorities and nutrition “experts” are still pushing the “feed lot” diet recommending the low fat/high card nutrition profile. The dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes in America began shortly after the brainwashing was completed in the ’70’s., and it follows the western diet all over the world. Eat Western food, get Western diseases.

    • Avatar Stella Rae says:

      they had less processed foods back then too and i’m sure didn’t have the snacks like we do today.

  10. Avatar Maureen says:

    I am inserting Healthy Eating and Exercise flyers into the employee news each month. No one moves here!! Only to get food from the kitchen..

  11. Avatar Zhanne says:

    First paragraph: “For the first time ever, not a single state had an obesity rate of under 20%. “. Third paragraph: “Ten years later, in 2010, no state had a rate of obesity under 20%”. Editor??

  12. Avatar swimjim says:

    BMI is flawed measurement. Being only based on height and weight excludes individuals with higher then average muscle mass. I’m 5’8″, weight 205 pounds I have a BMI of 31 (a “healthy” weight for me is 164 for a BMI of 25?), but have a 37″ waist, 42″ chest and a 15.5″ neck. Yes, I still have a noticeable layer of fat around my mid-section, but I also have definition in my abdominal muscles.

    Nutritionists, fitness and medical professionals need to come up with a more inclusive formula that includes measurements in addition to height and weight.

    • Avatar mike says:

      Agreed…I’ve always believed that body fat percentage is a far more important measurement of obesity than height vs. weight, which is all that BMI is. You would think by now someone would have developed a formula that takes all 3 into account. Sheesh…

    • Avatar what1233456 says:

      True, that is why Body Fat % is more indicative of health. Though the vast majority of people with a BMI over 30 would still have a high BF%, as most of them do not work out.

    • Avatar Farseer says:

      There is no better way to get a general measurement of the overall health of a large population than through BMI. The BMI calculation uses two measurements that are easy to obtain (height and weight), and provides a decent indication of health.
      Is BF% a better measurement? Of course it is. Getting an accurate BF% measurement is very, very difficult, though. Trying to apply this to an overall population is impossible.

      • Avatar swimjim says:

        My point is that BMI is a half-assed calculation it is very flawed. Medical/nutrition professionals NEED to develop a new formula that uses additional measurements, that are easy for the lay person to gather (waist or neck for example).

  13. Avatar SwissMiss says:

    We eat a very healthy diet, but I’ve found it is very easy to eat just enough of too much to add the pounds on. Food in this country is subsidised and much cheaper than Europe. It’s also sold in smaller packaging. I always lose weight when I live in Europe.

  14. Avatar what1233456 says:

    According to the CDC 2 out of every 3 Americans is either overweight or obese.

  15. Avatar Dawn says:

    Sad, sad, sad. I see that even some of us yearning to do better are still blaming more reporting and new standards as having a flawed report on the severity of climbing obesity rates. Visit the Detroit Institute of Arts and see some 1960’s photos of street shots with average population in them. They were dramatically, significantly less overweight than what you would see today in the same photograph. It was quite a shocking wakeup call and yet that is not even what the exhibit was about. There’s no doubt the obesity epidemic is just that, an epidemic. Let’s join forces and face the reality rather than making excuses.

  16. Avatar Beverly Batts says:

    It’s the processed food! Eating out! People have got to get back to cooking… fruits, vegetables and meats. Get back to the basics. We have no idea what is in the processed foods! I was shocked to see that the average weight of a person my age 65 is 177lbs. Unbelievable!

  17. Avatar Paulasc says:

    I come from Brazil, but been living in Canada for the last 8 years. I’m 5’11”, for Brazilian standard a giant. So every time I had an opportunity to travel to the States, I would buy pants long enough for me. And I still do that, even here in Montreal it’s not easy to find longer pants. All that being said, my impressions. About 20 years ago the biggest size on a regular store was 14, now its 18. The sizes are also a bit more generous, meaning that without losing an ounce my pant size went down. That alone is a sign. America is getting fatter every day. The apparel industry is adapting. In Canada I’m a size 10. In the States I’m a size 8 even 6!

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