More than 4 in 10 Americans now fit the medical definition for having obesity, putting them at risk for serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. The pandemic increased the stakes. In its first year, nearly one-third of severe COVID-19 cases were blamed on excess weight.
USA TODAY decided to take a look at how America’s weight has been changing in recent years, including advances in treatments and the scientific understanding of obesity. We spoke with more than 50 experts – in nutrition, endocrinology, psychology, exercise physiology and neuroscience – and people who are intimately familiar with the challenges of extra pounds.
The answers aren’t simple.
But they get to the essence of America: our issues with race, stigma, personal responsibility, economic stability and the power of corporations.
1: Obesity was considered a personal failing. Science shows it’s not.
Many people feel shame and guilt when they can’t lose weight. Human biology, which evolved to hold onto extra calories, makes it extremely tough to lose weight on your own. Help is hard to find, but it is out there.
2: Extra weight increases risks in the long run. Fat shaming hurts now.
Despite rising rates of overweight and obesity, the stigma of excess weight remains in virtually every aspect of society. Some people are fighting back, but it isn’t easy to counter decades of stereotyping and falsely simple solutions.
3: What we eat matters. Researchers search for the ‘best’ diet.
Biology makes it hard to lose weight. Our food environment makes it very easy to add excess pounds. What to eat if you’re trying to shed that extra weight or avoid unnecessary pounds? Scientists are still searching for answers.
4: People don’t choose to be fat. They live in a ‘system they don’t control.’
Extra weight is often considered a personal failing, but lots of factors beyond an individual’s power contribute to weight gain, including food deserts, the cost of healthy food, stress and prejudice. The situation isn’t hopeless.
5: New drugs, surgery deliver major weight loss. It comes at a cost.
Until recently, the only way to lose a substantial amount of weight was through surgery. New medications promise to change that, offering the possibility of shedding 15% to more than 20% of excess pounds. The challenge will be making these medications available to those who want them.
6: How will the obesity epidemic end? With kids.
Any solution will have to start with children, experts say. Starting almost from birth, kids learn patterns they follow for the rest of their lives, so there’s a lot at stake in teaching them to eat healthy, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.