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Despite Encouragement To Eat Better, Obesity Rises Among U.S. Adults


We have a partial explanation this morning for why it's taking so long to improve obesity rates in this country. The Centers for Disease Control released new numbers this week. In recent years, about 36 percent of adults were found to be obese. That is more than one-third of adult Americans. These numbers come despite years of efforts by health officials to encourage healthier eating and healthier lifestyles. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into this. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much worse is obesity than it used to be?

AUBREY: Well, you know, it seems as a country, we're just kind of stuck. Overall, adult obesity rates have continued to inch up over the last decade, even with all this drum beating to eat healthier and get more exercise, though a note of optimism here. The CDC found that in the last two years of its analysis, the changes were so slight that they were not statistically significant, so maybe the beginning of a leveling off.

INSKEEP: Maybe. Now I suppose it's no surprise that people in middle age had a special problem here. They are, as a group, even more obese. But what happens when you slice and dice other parts of the population? What do you find?

AUBREY: Well, the authors of this new analysis point to a rise in obesity among middle-aged adults. So that's us, Steve, people in their 40s and 50s. Now if you break it down by sex, it's women who have the highest prevalence, Forty-two percent are obese. Now if you dig deeper, the authors of the study point to an issue with minority women. The report puts the obesity rate for Hispanic women at 46 percent and 57 percent among black women.

INSKEEP: Wow, well, that does raise a question, though. Why would public health efforts not gain more traction in this age when the first lady of the United States make this a big deal?

AUBREY: Right.

INSKEEP: And there are federal efforts in this area, state and local...

AUBREY: Massive efforts, right.

AUBREY: ...Efforts in this area, and grocery store chains that are built around this idea of better eating.

AUBREY: Absolutely, and lots of reason policy changes, too, I mean, for instance, a federal law requiring that fast food chains and chain restaurants post calories on their menus. But you know what, Steve? Change takes time. I mean, these things are way too new to show any kind of, you know, measurable payoff. We're talking about turning around decades of ingrained behavior, so no one expects to see change overnight. It may take an entire generation, and that's why a lot of these efforts are focused on kids. If you look at, for instance, low-income mothers through the WIC program are getting access to nutritious foods. In many places, there's counseling, there's coaching, all kinds of things to help them eat better and help their children eat better. There's also big continued efforts to make school lunches healthier, so a lot of focus on changing the eating habits among the youngest Americans.

INSKEEP: Well, these statistics we quoted were for adults. How are kids doing that?

AUBREY: Well, actually, the picture is a little more promising for young people. Far fewer youth are obese than adults. The overall rate of obesity among two to 19-year-olds - that's a big span - is about 17 percent, so about half of the rate of adults. And as we've reported over the last two years, obesity rates among preschoolers, so the youngest Americans, have been declining in many states around the country. Now when this was first documented two summers ago, it was marked as a huge deal. The CDC director Tom Frieden came out, called it a tipping point after, you know, decades of study increases. And I think these numbers out today support the finding that the picture seems to be improving certainly for the youngest Americans but also maybe for adolescents, too.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks very much.

AUBREY: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.