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Obesity is at an all-time high among American adults, according to the latest government statistics, with nearly four in 10 considered to be dangerously overweight — creating a significant long-term challenge for public health policy, experts say.
Among American teens, about 19 percent are obese, which can increase the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, the National Center for Health Statistics or NCHS reported this month.
In Florida, the prevalence of obesity among adults and teens is lower than the national rate, though the comparison is not equal because the federal government and the state health department use different methods to gather data on the issue.
Miami-Dade had a slightly lower percentage of obese adults — about 24 percent — than the statewide rate of 26.4 percent in 2013, according to Florida Department of Health data. But middle and high school students had a higher rate, about 14.6 percent obesity compared to a statewide rate of 12.4 percent in 2014.
Craig Hales, an NCHS medical epidemiologist and author of the obesity report, said the federal agency’s annual survey is the only national study that verifies a person’s height and weight, which is used to calculate Body Mass Index or BMI as an indicator of obesity.
All other surveys on obesity use self-reported information, which is less reliable, Hale said. “Teens and adults tend to overestimate height and underestimate weight.”
Body Mass Index or BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. In adults, a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese while in teens the definition of obesity is statistical and based on a comparison to a reference group.
Hales send the agency’s annual obesity survey, begun in 1999, shows that American adults continue gaining weight that could be unhealthy for them but that obesity among teens appears to have leveled off.
“In adults it has been increasing and it continues to increase,” he said, “but for youth, it’s a different picture and we’re just seeing a continuing of the plateau.”
The national data, Hales said, is intended to guide policymakers on the federal, state and local levels trying to improve public health and control the costs of widespread chronic disease.
Overweight and obesity are linked to higher risks for poor health, including a greater likelihood of developing certain types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported in October that about 630,000 Americans were diagnosed with a cancer linked to overweight and obesity in 2014.
Catherine Coccia, a dietician and assistant professor for Florida International University’s Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, said policymakers can help by raising awareness of the public costs of obesity, ensuring access to exercise by maintaining parks and trails, and promoting urban gardens and other healthy eating initiatives.
Another study, she said, indicated that obese adults spend about 42 percent more on personal healthcare costs than adults with healthy weight.
Marisel Losa, CEO of the Health Council of South Florida, a public agency that collects health data and coordinates wellness initiatives in Miami-Dade, said the group has been working on efforts to motivate adults and teens to eat healthy.
“Prevention is key,” Losa said, noting that her group works with several dozen restaurants in Miami-Dade to help make their foods with less sodium and suger and healthier ingredients, a campaign called “Healthy Happens Here.”
“Most people think if you look at the calories and it’s low calorie, then you’re eating a healthy meal, which is wrong,” she said.
Losa added that many factors — including genetics, race, ethnicity, age, gender, lack of exercise and a dearth of healthy food options — contribute to unhealthy weight gain.