TUESDAY, July 5, 2022 (HealthDay News) — The obesity epidemic isn’t slowing down any time soon, and new research is delivering even worse news: Most American adults have not only gained more weight, they’ve taken most of it earlier in life.
The statistics were grim: More than half of Americans in the cross section had gained 5% or more body weight over a 10-year period. More than a third of Americans had gained 10% or more of body weight. And almost a fifth had gained 20% or more body weight.
The situation got worse: People were gaining more weight earlier in adulthood, carrying more of that extra weight for more years, the researchers found.
This pattern was surprising, said study author Larry Tucker, a professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Utah. “What people don’t realize is that most of that weight, the actual weight gain, is greatest at a younger age.”
In the study, his team collected National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) data on the 10-year weight change patterns of more than 13,800 American adults.
In 2000, about 30.5% of American adults were obese. In 2017-2018, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 42.4% of American adults had reached this weight.
Those extra pounds were accumulated in early adulthood: The average American gained about 17.6 pounds in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, according to the study. During this time, the average person gained about 14.3 pounds in their 30s and 40s, 9.5 pounds in their 40s and 50s, and 4.6 pounds in their 50s and 60s.
Women gained twice as much weight as men, 12 pounds on average, compared to about 6 pounds. Black women had the highest average weight gain over 10 years, around 19.4 pounds.
Reasons for the nationwide increase vary, Tucker said. The environment in which people live and eat is very different from what it was 50 or 100 years ago. Obesity rates didn’t start to climb until the late 1970s or early 1980s, he explained.
“It’s because very quickly certain things happened,” Tucker said. “That’s when fast food became mainstream. Before, people had more control over what they ate. People would sit down and eat their meals. People would plan ahead. ‘That’ are you going to eat? What are you eating tonight?'”
Eating what is admittedly a tasty but calorie-laden quick meal makes it difficult for a person to control what they eat, he said.
“It takes a very conscientious person to work around that. I do this for a living and I’m thin, but that’s because I’m very aware of the situation,” Tucker said.
The results were recently published in the Obesity Diary.
Dr. Ethan Lazarus, president of the Obesity Medicine Association, said he had never seen the issue of obesity studied in this way before.
“It definitely underscores the idea that obesity is not an equal opportunity employer. It unfortunately disproportionately affects already marginalized groups with less access to care,” noted Lazarus, who was not part of of the study.
One reason for the greater impact on women may be that they have experienced more environmental change than men over the past five decades, with more people in the workforce and also taking care of families, he said.
“I think you see a lot of posts these days about higher stress levels and less sleep, and more time sitting and more time staring at computer screens,” Lazarus said. “It’s become the normal job for Americans is to sit at a computer all day and then we come home and we’re so tired that all we can do is sit on the couch and to play with the phone. It’s like we’re never unplugged.”
Lazarus also pointed to foods that Americans eat from a box with high amounts of sugar and low nutritional value as a factor.
“What we consider a normal diet in America, I think, is fueling this epidemic,” Lazarus said.
He suggested rethinking the values of earning money and working longer hours and instead refocusing on personal health.
For those already living with obesity, the Obesity Medicine Association suggests healthy eating, advice on physical activity and what it calls intensive lifestyle intervention, which addresses the issues that lead to weight, such as stress, sleep deprivation and social events. A variety of new drugs can also target obesity, Lazarus said.
For people with more advanced or complicated obesity, there are surgical options, Lazarus said.
Tucker said he would like to see more education based on well-established principles of healthy eating from an early age, including not rewarding young people with food and encouraging fruits and vegetables.
“I think knowing that at a young age with the medical community involved, with the schools involved, we don’t want people to become obsessed and think their value is in their weight,” Tucker noted.
“It’s not healthy, but at the same time we want them to realize that it’s hard to be healthy,” he said. “It’s hard to prevent diabetes. It’s hard to prevent heart disease if people keep gaining weight and becoming obese.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on overweight and obesity.
SOURCES: Larry Tucker, PhD, professor, exercise science, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Ethan Lazarus, MD, president, Obesity Medicine Association, and physician, Clinical Nutrition Center, Greenwood Village, Colo.; Obesity DiaryMay 6, 2022
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