National survey tracked average weight, waist size, and BMI in adults.
Obesity in the United States has become so prevalent that it has been called a public health crisis, and new government data released this month finds that the average American has gained a significant amount of weight since 1999.
The average waist size for men and women has also expanded, and the average body mass index (BMI) has grown as well.
“The averages are consistent with the increase in obesity that we’ve seen over time,” says report author Cynthia Ogden, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). “Last year, we published a data brief that showed about 40 percent of the U.S. population of adults have obesity. This report is following up on that work, and it looks at mean, or average, levels of weight, height, BMI, and waist circumference over time from 1999–2000 to 2015–2016.”
Dr. Ogden and colleagues examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that are collected every two years, representing physical examinations of 47,233 individuals age 20 and over.
Tipping the Scales, by Gender and Race
The report observed that the average weight rose from 189.4 pounds to 197.9 pounds for men and from 163.8 to 170.6 pounds for women.
“The thing that really struck me was the increase in weight among Mexican-American women in comparison with other [ethnic] groups,” says Ogden.
Among Mexican-American women, there was an increase of about 14 pounds over the time period, compared with about 9 pounds for white women and only about 0.2 pounds for black women.
“You can see the same pattern among Mexican-American men, where there is about a 12.5 pound increase in men, compared with about 9 or 10 pounds in white men and 9 pounds in black men,” says Ogden.
She notes that they did not have as much information on Asian-American men and women, so that data was not comparable.
Tracking BMI and Waist Size
Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. Over the time period covered in the report, average BMI for men rose from 27.8 to 29.1; and for women, it went from 28.2 to 29.6.
The CDC says that a BMI of 30 and above can indicate obesity, so the averages for both American men and women are approaching critical levels.
When it came to average waist circumferences, men’s expanded from 39 to 40.2 inches and women’s increased from 36.3 to 38.6 inches.
These average waist sizes indicate significant amounts of abdominal fat and a higher risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. For women, this risk climbs if waist size is greater than 35 inches and for men the risk is greater if waist circumference exceeds 40 inches.
Slight Decreases in Average Height
The study also looked at average heights and found a slight decline with men measuring 69.2 inches in 1999–2000, compared with 69.1 inches in 2015–16. Women’s height went from 63.8 inches to 63.7.
Mitchell Roslin, MD, who is chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and was not involved in the report, says that the results show that the nation is “going backwards” when it comes to overall health.
“Look at all of the money that we’re spending on healthcare because of obesity and diabetes, obesity-related cancer, and obesity-related cardiovascular disease,” he says.
The CDC reports that the medical care costs of obesity in the United States in 2008 dollars were estimated to be $147 billion.
“We need to encourage healthy behaviors, including eating healthy foods and [getting] regular exercise,” says Dr. Roslin. “Exercise is essential for wellness, and food is the most important medicine we put in the body.”