Despite years of government efforts to encourage people to eat healthier and exercise more, the obesity rate continues to climb. Health experts say it's time to take a new approach to promoting a healthy weight.
Between 1976 and 1980, a national survey found that 15 percent of adults and 5.5 percent of children had an obese Body Mass Index of 30 or more, the Los Angeles Times reports. Data from the 2015 to 2016 "Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth" survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adult obesity in the U.S. has reached an all-time high of 39.8 percent, impacting roughly four out of every 10 people. Childhood obesity was at 18 percent.
These weight figures represent a more than 30 percent increase for adults and youth since the beginning of the 21st century. And it's not just the U.S. suffering from an obesity epidemic -- worldwide trends are on the rise.
A study published in The Lancet on Oct. 11 and reported by BBC News looked at obesity rates among youth in more than 200 countries. Researchers found that while youth trends were stabilizing in high-income nations, countries in East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were rapidly increasing. If trends continue, then more children will be obese than underweight by 2022, CBS News reports.
Overweight but not obese children already surpass the amount of underweight children at 213 million versus 192 million, according to BBC News.
Children and teens in the U.S. are among other developed countries stagnating in childhood obesity. Between 2003 to 2004 and 2013 to 2014, the CDC found no significant increase in obese children; similarly, the most recent data also did not mark a significant increase for either children or adults. It's the rate over the past few decades that has physicians worried.
"It's difficult to be optimistic at this point," Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told NBC News. "The trend of obesity has been steadily increasing in both children and adults despite many public health efforts to improve nutrition and physical activity."
Racial and gender disparities amongst obesity rates were also a cause for concern. Hispanic and black Americans were each about 9 percent more likely to be obese than white Americans and about 34 percent more likely than Asian Americans, according to the Los Angeles Times. Both Hispanics and blacks also had much higher proportions of obese women than obese men, with each group differing about 18 percent and 7.5 percent respectively.
Patrick T. Bradshaw, a population health researcher at UC Berkeley, said the statistics "suggest that we haven’t been successful in efforts to reduce or prevent obesity in the population."
Adults with a BMI of less than 25, which is considered normal, now constitute a minority compared to the 70.7 percent of Americans who are either obese or overweight, NBC News reports. While BMI is often criticized as an inaccurate assessment of a person's health, those who fall in the obese range are at a higher risk for having a heart attack, a stroke and diabetes.
The World Obesity Federation estimates that obesity-related conditions will cost the U.S. $1.2 trillion in healthcare per year by 2025, CBS News reports.
Suggestions to tackle the epidemic include imposing a sugar tax on soft drinks, a tax more than 20 countries have implemented, BBC News reports.
Some are wary of implementing such a tax in the U.S.
"Obesity rates have been going up for years while soda consumption has been going down," said trade group American Beverage Association spokesman William Dermody to USA Today. "Shouldn’t obesity have gone down with the reduction in soda consumption? It hasn’t, because beverages are only 6 percent of the diet.”
Still, Hu maintains the food system in general is what's causing so many people to be severely overweight, and that it might be more effective to create initiatives that increase access to healthy foods than to continue to recommend diet and exercise.
“The food system is very unhealthy," Hu said. "It’s dominated by highly processed, refined carbohydrates and sugars. Healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains are much more expensive and much less accessible, especially for people of lower socioeconomic status.”