Americans are getting fatter. Over the last two decades the percentage of overweight and obese adults and children have been steadily increasing. According to National Institutes of Health, packing around all those extra pounds is also making us sicker. For the first time ever, obesity may surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable cancer.
Since 1995, smoking rates in the US have fallen by 20 percent, while obesity rates have risen by 48 percent. If those rates continue, obesity will soon cancel out the life expectancy and quality-of-life benefits gained by declining smoking rates, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Nearly one in three of all U.S. adults is now classified as overweight or obese, according to the NHI, a 7.6 percentage point increase since 1994. The data show that 31 percent of adults 20 years and older—nearly 59 million people—have a body mass index of 30 or greater, compared with 23 percent in 1994.
According to a recent American Institute for Cancer Research study, more than 100,000 cancers in the U.S. are linked to excess body fat. The total medical tab for obesity-related illnesses is $117 billion a year—and climbing—according to the Surgeon General.
“The evidence is clear: If people sustain a normal body weight and remain physically active throughout life, it will have a major impact on cancer incidence,” said Laurence N. Kolonel, MD, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and a member of the expert panel who crunched the numbers.
Perhaps more frightening is the percentage of children who are overweight and obese continues to grow. Among children and teens, ages 6 to 19, a whopping 15 percent—nearly 9 million in 2000 (the latest data available)—is triple to the proportion in 1980. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates today's percentage to be between 16 and 33 percent.