Study: U.S. obesity rate will hit 42 percent
November 4th, 2010
05:00 PM ET

Study: U.S. obesity rate will hit 42 percent

Just over one-third of American adults are obese. Though alarmingly high, this rate has remained relatively steady over the past decade, leading some public health experts to suggest that the obesity epidemic has peaked.

Now, researchers at Harvard University are predicting that the worst is yet to come. If current trends continue, they say, the obesity rate in the U.S. won't level off until it reaches at least 42 percent, circa 2050.

"The recent slowdown in the increase in obesity prevalence is a natural part of the obesity epidemic reaching a saturation," says the lead author of the study, Alison Hill, a doctoral candidate in Harvard's department of biophysics. But, she adds, obesity rates "will still continue to increase, although at a slower rate, if no interventions are introduced."

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This bleak forecast, which appears in a study published this week in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, is based on the social networks research of one of Hill's co-authors, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, M.D., a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, in Boston.

In a 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Christakis and a colleague suggested that obesity can spread through social networks, much like the flu. In the new study, the researchers took this theory a step further and used the "infectious disease" model of obesity to predict future trends.

Obesity rates have a tendency to snowball, they found, because a person's likelihood of becoming obese increases with each additional obese family member, friend, or acquaintance he or she has. What's more, obese people appear to have a stronger influence on their friends and family now than they did in 1971, when the earliest data used in the study was collected.

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"Over the past 40 years, there has been a steady increase in the rate of infection, and it is now the highest it has been," Hill says. "What's changing over time is how much each obese friend influences you."

Unfortunately that influence doesn't work the other way around. Only weight gain—not weight loss—is "contagious," according to the study.

Hill and her colleagues predicted the national obesity rate by applying their social networks model to 40 years of obesity data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed several generations of people in a single Massachusetts town. (Obesity rates in that study have roughly mirrored national trends: 14 percent of the study participants were obese in 1971, but by 2000 that number had reached 30 percent.)

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Dr. Scott Kahan, M.D., the co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Center, in Washington, D.C., says that the new study is "worthwhile" but should be taken with a grain of salt.

The data the researchers used to make their projections were collected before the obesity epidemic became a major public health concern, Kahan notes, and anti-obesity interventions have since been ramped up.

"We're in a different place," he says. "We never addressed obesity until five years ago. … We're addressing policies and schools and social norms [now]."

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Filed under: Obesity

soundoff (165 Responses)
  1. checkdent

    Excluding those who are obese cause of medical problems, for majority of us obesity is a choice not a disease. A choice of not eating healthy and not exercising. We have plenty of information of how to do these things properly but we're just sitting on our ears.


    November 7, 2010 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
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    November 8, 2010 at 05:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. William Eberwein

    It is simply not true. This is junk science. Using "BMI" you find virtually everyone is "overweight" or "obese." We are an aging population (subtracting immigration), with fewer babies in the average. Do a few googles on "obesity myth" and educate yourself.

    November 8, 2010 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nope

      ...Or you could just go outside and see the proof for yourself. Everyone is fat these days because no one exercises. I see people park (illegally) in handicap spaces so they don't have to walk an extra 40 feet to the grocery store. There is no myth – this country is fatter than ever.

      November 10, 2011 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
  4. Jeremy

    If you are obese and hitting the gym regardless of the stares you may receive: GOOD ON YOU!!!! When I see overweight people in the gym I admire their desire to change their life! Keep at it and you will see and feel the results.

    November 8, 2010 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Charles

    What an utter piece of journalistic garbage. And shame on Harvard for producing such a ridiculous study.

    "Obesity rates are currently around 33% and have been for ten years - but due to some mystical, magical force, they will suddenly reach 42% 40 years from now!" JUNK SCIENCE!!!

    "Obesity is a communicative disease like the flu" - PSEUDO-SCIENCE GARBAGE!!!

    And personally, I welcome higher rates of obesity in the US. It can go up to 70% or 80% for all I care. Why? Because I'm not obese, and the more obese the rest of the people become, the more I'll have to gain by remaining at a normal weight! The great thing about staying at a normal weight is that it doesn't cost a cent - just walk/bike everywhere and don't eat too much. Even in poorest parts of Africa, people can afford that - and they avoid obesity. Not only do you burn calories and stay fit, but you also don't spend money on gas and extra food. Common sense, folks.

    "Gee, I'm going to spend thousands of dollars a year maintaining my car and drive everywhere so I can get fat from a sedentary lifestyle and then blow thousands of dollars and hours on health products and gym membership." I guess I'm the only person who doesn't find that mentality laughable.

    Oh well, feed your faces, suckers.

    November 8, 2010 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rick

      You sir, are an idiot.
      Do you realize that the more obese people there are, the more the government will have to spend on health care for those who cannot afford it? Who do you think pays that? More fat bodies that need medical intervention to control heart disease, diabetes and a slew of other physiological problems is directly proportional to the rise in health care cost; Thus, forcing the government to take away from other programs that actually need more funding like education. You may want to reconsider posting on open forums until you can logically process the reality of current affairs and form and educated response. Now take your foot out of your mouth, fool.

      November 10, 2011 at 17:39 | Report abuse |
  6. Really?????

    People will continue to be fat and overweight as long as it is inexpensive. The government should tax the HELL outta soda and other junk just like they do cigs and liquor. The government should also put restrictions on ppls food stamps, ppl on food stamps should not be able to use them on energy drinks, sodas, prepackaged food and other junk! That is what makes this country fat the free junk that is provide by the government!

    November 9, 2010 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • BigD

      If we want to truely make things expensive for the unhealthy lets stop covering treatment of medical events caused by obesity. We can all save a ton.

      November 10, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse |
  7. Jon

    Now that you mention the tax, Bloomberg has tried (and is currently still trying) to get a ban on purchasing Soda with food stamps (in line with the whole High Fructose Corn Syrup Obesity Theory).

    In the end though, eating healthy is about sacrificing time and convenience for well being more so than cost. Most people these days don't know how to cook. However, here is one recipe to get started: http://bit.ly/afanXf

    November 9, 2010 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Emmanuel Peguero

    I think that people need to take care of themselves. If you are obese and want to make a change please contact me at 407-520-0229. Check us out at http://www.monaviervl.com

    November 9, 2010 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Phil

    This "infectious disease" model unfortunately leads one to the conclusion that a person should avoid being surrounded by fat people if he or she wants to stay skinny. While the evidence may indicate that having more overweight people in your life leads you to become overweight, it would be no stretch to assume that this is because of the choices you make, not in fact, by being in the proximity of the obese. Why not make this disease seem less like a bacterial or viral infection ("I got this cold from So-and-So") and more like cigarette-induced lung cancer ("I made poor life choices like my friends and now have lung cancer")? It would allow for people to assume personal responsibility and maybe even motivate them to help others make healthy food choices because it would, in turn, help them.

    November 12, 2010 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jon

    Man... not good. On the other hand, the whole "infectious disease" model of obesity they're talking about is interesting. Wonder how that works on a psychological level - you figure, "well, I'm not as bad as that guy, so I can eat a little bit more?" - Or maybe people subconsciously adapt to whatever their societal norm is? Anyway, what this suggests is that willpower is somehow a collective thing... if one of us is weak, it weakens everyone around us. Interesting...

    November 18, 2010 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. razzlea

    This is so crazy 42% of population considered obese WOW. if you need info on health and fitness check out my blog http://razzlea.blogspot.com/

    November 19, 2010 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Chris

    There is a company that wants to "End The Trend" of obesity and it's name is Beachbody. Check it out. http://www.beachbodycoach.com/deltamase

    February 8, 2011 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RussoTuristo

    Not to worry.. with food prices rising and next great depression coming soon – people will get plenty of chance to slim down in the next few years. May be it will be good for overall population health after all.

    November 10, 2011 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
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  18. Hi

    Does anyone else notice that you can't say someone is too fat/obese without offending a lot of people/ getting angry retorts, but if someone calls you a "a stick" or "too skinny", and assumes that you don't eat enough (not true) no one says/ or thinks anything even though it's also offensive/mean?

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