The share of overweight and obese Americans has tripled since the 1980s, according to official data that lays bare the country’s obesity crisis.
In the late 1980s, no more than 15% of the adult population was considered overweight or obese.
But now US health officials say rates have reached “epidemic” proportions, with obesity rates reaching 42% nationwide.
Experts say this shift has been driven by people starting to eat more ultra-processed foods that are high in fats, sugars and salts but low in vital nutrients.
Americans have also started having more sedentary lifestyles and office jobs, while many people in rural communities now live in food deserts.
The map above shows how obesity rates increased from 1987 to 2021 across the country. Initially, less than 15% of adults were obese, but the rate now stands at 42%.
The map above shows obesity rates in the United States in 1987, by state. It shows that no state had a rate above 15%
By 2003, however, the situation had changed, with most states having obesity rates above 20%.
The obesity crisis in the United States was declared an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1999.
It is tracked through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which monitors trends nationwide.
Each year, a group of 400,000 Americans are asked about their weight and height by the survey.
Their answers are then converted into body mass index (BMI), with which is used to calculate obesity rates by state and for the entire country.
In 1987, no state had an obesity rate above 15%, while most had rates below 10%.
But by 2003, rates had jumped, with nearly half of the states having obesity rates of 20 to 24 percent. None were below 10%.
The sudden change was likely linked to changing American diets, experts warned.
Obesity rates began to climb in the 1980s, which was around the same time that ultra-processed foods, including pizza, ice cream and sugary drinks, became a bigger part important part of the American diet.
These foods are high in fats, sugars and salts, but low in essential micro and macro nutrients for the body, which would make people eat more.
In 2021, about 42% of Americans were overweight or obese according to official data.
By state, there were two – Kentucky and West Virginia – where rates were above 40%, while 17 had figures between 35 and 40%.
To top off the trend, the CDC’s maps have now added a category for states where one in two people are overweight or obese, perhaps in preparation for the increasingly large waistline.
Researchers from Athabasca University, Canada, who analyzed US obesity rates in 2022, said these were the main driver of height expansion in the United States.
They cited separate research showing that the amount of sugar per day in the average American diet jumped 36.7 grams between 1978 and 1997.
“There is strong evidence that consuming sugary drinks leads to higher energy intake and greater weight gain,” they said.
“A similar trend is also seen with other ultra-processed foods.
“Factors that have likely contributed to the rise in consumption of ultra-processed foods include their relatively low price and the growing popularity of fast food restaurants.”
There has also been a decline in physical activity since the 1960s and 1970s, with more Americans now working in offices.
But scientists at Athabasca University insisted it played only a “minor role” in the obesity epidemic.
And this map shows the situation in 2010, with more and more states having obesity rates above 25%.
This map shows overall obesity rates by state from 2021, the latest year with data available.
The map above shows the prevalence of obesity by state in the United States in 2021. It was highest in Kentucky and West Virginia, but lowest in Hawaii and Colorado. Washington DC, which is not yet a state, had the lowest rate
The chart above shows diabetes rates as a proportion of the population, a key risk factor for people with diabetes. It shows that cases of diagnosed diabetes have increased since the early 2000s with obesity
A rural-urban divide has also emerged, with rates tending to be higher in rural areas where access to healthy food is less.
CDC Acting Senior Deputy Director Debra Houry said last year that the data “illustrates the urgent need to make obesity prevention and treatment available to all Americans in every state and community.”
Obesity causes excess fat cells to accumulate around vital organs, impairing their function, while the extra weight can lead to strain on joints and limbs.
Fat cells also release hormones in the body, leaving someone struggling to regulate their appetite and with higher levels of inflammation.
Scientists have already linked obesity to a number of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, behind smoking.
About 280,000 Americans die directly from obesity each year.
President Joe Biden has already unveiled plans to crack down on the country’s waistline, including introducing nutrition labeling on the front of food products to highlight snacks that are too high in fats, sugars and salts.
Criteria for “healthy” foods have also been tightened under stricter rules.