For the first time since the numbers were crunched in 1980, the U.S. obesity epidemic seems to have reached a plateau. Americans got heavier and heavier through the 1980s and 1990s, but starting in the early 2000s, the steep increases seemed to slow.
Two studies, one in adults and one in children, were published online today by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2009-2010. They found no change from the prior survey, the second period of no change in the last 10 years.
Pat Crawford, Director of the Center for Weight and Health at U.C. Berkeley called the studies "cautious good news. ... I am thrilled with the plateauing and I am encouraged. I think the biggest risk is that people relax and think we don't have an obesity issue any more." Today about one-third of American men and women, and about one in six children and teens are obese.
While the researchers would not say why they thought the rate of obesity was leveling off, Crawford attributed the change to many factors, from public education, worksite wellness campaigns, social marketing campaigns and even the move to ban soda machines from schools. In 2005, California became the first state to ban soda and certain kinds of less nutritious foods from being sold in all K-12 schools, a change which many states have followed in the years since.
"We're beginning to inch toward some substantive societal changes," Crawford said, "the same kind of changes we saw with the early tobacco movement. It's not that we don't know what causes obesity. It was the same thing with tobacco. We had lots of information that tobacco caused cancer, but we had to move forward on multiple fronts, the education alone was not enough."
What's critical, she said, is that the increase seems to have stopped. "If we build on the momentum and we keep linking all these activities together, we'll continue to gain ground and that will have widespread implications."