Obesity in America: Statistics, Causes & Facts

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Obesity is a major concern for the medical and sociological fields. How much of a problem is it? What is leading an increase in obesity? Is it purely a calorie issue or are there other causes? Find out here.


'There is a growing problem in America.' Puns make me groan, but this line was too perfect to pass up. If you have turned on the news in the last decade or otherwise heard the concerns of health experts, you should know that there is a growing obesity problem in the United States. What does it mean to be obese? How bad is it? What is causing it?

Obesity Defined

Obesity is defined as an excessive amount of body fat in relation to one's body mass. Specifically, obesity is 30% more than the ideal weight for a specified height and/or a BMI of 30+.

BMI, the Weight-Height Relationship

Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a numerical representation of the ratio between a person's weight to their height. If a person weighs 200 lbs. yet is short, then their BMI would be large. Another 200 lb. person who is tall would have a smaller BMI because they have more height for the weight. There are plenty of free BMI calculators on the internet, but here is one of the formulas used:

(W / (H x H)) x 703=BMI

W= weight in pounds

H= height in inches

I'm 6'3' and 185lbs, so (185/5625) x 703= 23. We check the chart below. Voila! It's a good BMI.


I have to mention that the BMI is not perfect; it is an indiscriminate calculator. If you are a weight lifter, your BMI might be in the obese range because muscle is denser than fat. Due to women having higher percentages of body fat, using the same formula for men and women could also create discrepancies.

Statistics and Costs

How bad is the obesity problem? According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.7% of Americans are obese. In 2008, it was estimated that $147 billion dollars were spent on medical costs due to diseases caused by obesity, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. By being obese, the average medical costs INCREASE by $1,429. Obesity is something that has spread across races, with obesity rates for whites at 34.2%, non-Hispanic blacks at 48.7%, and Hispanics at 39.2%.

Higher income is correlated with lower obesity levels, and women with higher education levels are associated with lower levels of obesity than less educated women. By state, the lowest obesity rate was 20.7% in Colorado and 34.9% in Mississippi. In 2011, thirty-nine states had an obesity rate over 25%.

U.S. obesity rates for children are high. Recent studies place rate of obesity for children in the U.S. between 14% and 17%, and 2.2% of children as extremely obese (BMI of 35 or more). Since 1980, the obesity rate for children has tripled.

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