The Rise of Obesity in America



The percentage of obesity prevalence in every state as of 2018

The prevalence of obesity in America is on the rise. The American diet, food availability, and lack of awareness all contribute to this concerning trend in national health.

US map of the percentage of obesity among adults in every state. (CDC)

Obesity is defined by the World Health Organization as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk. When someone is obese,  he/she has a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. According to, over 41.9 percent of adults in America were obese between the years 2017 and 2020… That’s two in every five adults in America. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, one in five children are obese in the U.S. In the past three decades alone, obesity rates have tripled among teenagers and doubled among young children. There are several factors that can lead to the obesity results we see today.

One of the main factors is the diet many Americans have adopted in recent years. Researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health conducted an 18-year study, from 2001 through 2018. In this study, they asked 41,000 adults what they had eaten in the past 24 hours. The majority of the responses stated that they ate ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat foods that include a lot of added products. They include pizza, fast food, soda, and ice cream.  

Many of these foods contain an overload of added sugars and carbohydrates, which leads to rapid weight gain. From the beginning of the survey to the end, the amount of ultra-processed food consumption increased from 53.5 percent to 57 percent at the end of 2018.

Although Americans’ diet is one cause of obesity, there are still several other causes that can lead to obesity. Some of these factors include genetics, lack of physical activity, and toxic environments. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, many families have genetic predispositions to obesity that can cause them to require a change in diet or lifestyle. This means that many families who have these genetic issues have a ready availability of food at all hours of the day. Due to this change, many people buy their food at places that didn’t initially sell food, such as gas stations and pharmacies. These places typically sell highly processed foods. 

Bar graph showing the number of states with over a 30% obesity rate between the years of 2011 and 2021. (Trust for America’s Health)

Secondly, physical activity has a major effect on obesity in America. Physical activity refers to any body movement that burns calories. Obesity can also result from energy imbalance: too many calories consumed and not as many calories burned. Physical activity can help humans lose weight or maintain a certain weight. However, globally, one in three people is not receiving enough daily exercise, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Experts recommend that people should get at least one hour of physical activity every single day, and since many people in the U.S. aren’t sufficiently exercising, calories will be unnecessarily consumed, which can lead to an increase in obesity rates.

Third, the environment where humans choose to get their food has a large influence. For example, low-income families face many barriers that can lead to avoiding healthy food options, such as fruits and vegetables. One huge barrier is that healthier foods are a lot more expensive in grocery stores than processed foods. Due to the price of these goods, it is common for many low-income families to avoid these goods and settle for unhealthier food options. Since so many communities, like the poor, live in environments that make processed foods more accessible, it is very common for obesity rates to increase. Due to the large price difference between processed and healthy foods, many are drawn to manufactured foods for their easy accessibility and cheap price.

Obesity can create major health and economic risks. Excessive weight gain can impact almost every part of someone’s health, from memory and blood pressure to pregnancy and life expectancy. According to the World Health Organization, over four million people every year die indirectly from obesity. This is because obesity makes humans susceptible to many life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. 

Economically, many risks come with obesity as well. Treating patients for obesity costs the U.S. billions of dollars every year. Many employees have to miss work every day because of obesity symptoms. Obesity is an epidemic that will continue to have an impact on Americans economically, as millions continue to die every year, and adults with obesity have higher annual Medicare costs (around $2,505 more) compared to normal-weight adults.

It is clear that there is not a single factor contributing to obesity. As a result, obesity is caused not only by a person’s choices but also by a person’s genetics and economic status.