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Obesity History in America

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
Obesity History in America
Make the right lifestyle changes to reduce excess weight. Photo Credit Bambu Productions/Taxi/Getty Images

Obesity is a major health concern in the United States; however, what is now an epidemic was once a much less common occurrence. While scientists don't have all the answers as to the causes of the obesity epidemic, the historical timeline of obesity provides some clues to its origins. In the past, your ancestors struggled with food scarcity; whereas, today, Americans enjoy an overabundance of available food sources. Managing your weight is key in staying healthy, and healthy diet and exercise habits can help you maintain a healthy weight.

Obesity Surge in the Late 19th Century

When tracing the history of obesity in America, researchers point to the increase in fat and sugar intake that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, an increase that began with the initial goal of reducing malnutrition by providing a low-cost source of calories, according to the authors of an article published in the journal Epidemiological Previews in 2007. While experts don't agree on exactly when the trend toward obesity in America began, America saw a sharp surge from 1990 -- when no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent -- to 2004, when more than 30 percent of adults in America were considered obese.

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Obesity Throughout the 1900s

While the sharpest surge in obesity occurred during the latter part of the 20th century, researchers point out that as early as the 1930s, life insurance companies identified excess weight as a risk for premature death; as a result, they used weight as a factor in determining premiums. By the 1960s, evidence from national surveys showed a clear trend toward heavier weight. Industrialization may have facilitated the trend toward weight gain in developed countries. During this time, a shift occurred toward convenience and fast foods, which have a higher fat and sugar content; plus, Americans began to live more sedentary lifestyles -- a double whammy for weight gain.

Current Obesity Trends

Data from the 2009 to 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that Americans' waistlines continue to increase. More than one in every three adults is classified as obese, which is roughly 36 percent of all adults. Rates of extreme obesity -- a BMI of 40 or above -- have increased as well. While extreme obesity was almost unheard of 50 years ago, the rate has climbed to 1 out of every 20 adults, or more than 6 percent.

Obesity rates are similar among males and females; however, certain ethnic groups appear to have a higher prevalence of obesity. Rates of obesity are significantly lower among Asians than other ethnic groups, while African Americans and Hispanic Americans have a higher obesity rate than other groups.

Contributors to Obesity Epidemic

Sometimes obesity is caused by factors outside of your control, such as certain medical conditions, but you have the ability to change some of the other factors that play into the obesity trend. Unhealthy snacking and eating away from home, such as at a fast food restaurant, play a significant role in excess weight. Larger portion sizes and failing to get enough physical activity are other obesity risk factors that you can control.

If you are at risk of obesity, diet and lifestyle changes have proven effective at controlling weight. If you're not getting enough exercise, it's best to get moving. Choose an activity that you enjoy doing, whether it's swimming, hiking, skateboarding or biking, or try a new sport such as tennis or volleyball. To maintain a healthy weight, aim to get 150 minutes or more of exercise each week. Start slowly to avoid injury if you're used to being more sedentary.

Cut back on empty calories that provide little to no nutrition such as sugar-sweetened beverages and junk foods and replace them with more nutritious options such as fruit. Set aside time to make more of your meals at home so you're not tempted to stop at convenience stores and fast food outlets. When you go grocery shopping, pick up plenty of fresh whole foods such as lean protein, various vegetables, an assortment of fruit, nuts and seeds, nut butters and low-fat dairy. If you stay stocked up on nutrient-rich foods, you'll always have healthy options on hand.

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