Can We Get Real? Obesity Rates Are Up Again

Obesity Prevalence 2016Happy talk makes us impatient. Today, new data on obesity are out from the CDC and they are not good. Yet again, the U.S. is setting new records for obesity rates. Among adults the prevalence is now up to 39.6%. For children and youth, it’s up to 18.5%.

Most notably, a big jump came in obesity prevalence for children between the ages of two and five. It jumped from 9% to 14%.  Prior to this report, some public health officials were trying to claim that rates were heading down in this age group.

So happy talk about “progress” and childhood obesity rates that have “stabilized” looks more like self deception than an honest appraisal of the state of efforts to reduce the health impact of obesity.

A Failure in Prevention and in Candor

This report puts a spotlight on a dual failure. Patrick Bradshaw from the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley says it plainly:

These numbers suggest that we haven’t been successful in efforts to reduce or prevent obesity in the population.

The report from the CDC says it rather dryly:

The prevalence of obesity in the United States remains higher than the Healthy People 2020 goals of 14.5% among youth and 30.5% among adults.

But more troubling than the failure of current prevention efforts is the failure of candor and objectivity. We hear much about commercial bias in research. But we don’t hear much talk about bias that comes when people who are advocating for public health programs are reporting on their effects.

Barely more than a month ago, RWJF CEO Richard Besser was saying “the progress we’ve seen in recent years is real and it’s encouraging.” We can hardly blame him. People in the obesity prevention industry have been talking for years now about “plummeting” rates in young children.

But these data make it clear that obesity data are noisy. A single blip up or down doesn’t mean a lot. And if you brag about success based on thin data, you’re likely to look foolish later.

More Candor and More Rigor Needed

Can we get real about this? We need real, evidence-based obesity prevention and care. We need honest and rigorous evaluations of what works and what doesn’t. Until we apply more scientific rigor to this complex problem, we have no chance of reversing it.

Click here for the CDC report. For further perspective, click here and here.

UP! Photograph © Steve Wedgwood / flickr

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October 13, 2017

One Response to “Can We Get Real? Obesity Rates Are Up Again”

  1. October 13, 2017 at 11:09 pm, Allen Browne said: