U.S. Obesity Rates Continue Rising and Raise Risk for Severe COVID-19

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2019 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report a rising number of Americans have obesity, a risk factor for several diseases and severe COVID-19 complications.

Data from the CDC’s 2019 Adult Obesity Prevalence Maps indicate that 35% or more of adults are categorized as obese in twelve states, according to self-reported weight and height data. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The CDC released the maps on September 17, 2020.

In contrast, CDC’s 2018 obesity maps had nine states where 35% or more adults had obesity. The 2017 maps showed just six states. Map data came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a survey conducted via telephone by the CDC and state health departments.

Obesity is a complex condition in which behavior, environment, community, medications, genes and other diseases play roles. Obesity is a serious public health concern because it raises the risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, several cancers, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, depression, and anxiety, among others, and is associated with metabolic syndrome.

The CDC’s obesity maps show the percentage of adults with obesity during each year based on self-reported height and weight data. Weight and height data are used to determine body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat. BMI helps healthcare practitioners determine whether someone is underweight, at a healthy weight, is overweight, or has obesity. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal weight. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

In addition to location, the obesity maps break down the percentage of adults with obesity by education, age, and race/ethnicity. According to the 2019 map, obesity rates decreased with more education. Adults without a high school degree or equivalent had the highest self-reported obesity rate (36.2%), followed by high school graduates (34.3%), adults with some college (32.8%), and college graduates (25.0%).

Young adults were half as likely to have obesity as middle-aged adults, according to the 2019 map. Adults aged 18 to 24 years had the lowest self-reported obesity rate (18.9%) compared to adults aged 45 to 54 years, who had the highest prevalence (37.6%).

Combined data from 2017-2019 CDC obesity maps show racial and ethnic disparities. Just six states had 35% or more white adults reporting obesity. In comparison, 15 states had the same proportion of Hispanic adults reporting obesity, and 34 states had the same proportion of Black adults reporting obesity.

Obesity and COVID-19
A CDC statement on COVID-19 released with the 2019 obesity map warns that obesity can increase the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and even death. Obesity disproportionately impacts some racial and ethnic minority groups who are also at increased risk of COVID-19, including Blacks and Hispanics. These disparities underscore the need to remove barriers to healthy living and ensure that communities support a healthy, active lifestyle for all. However, racial and ethnic minority groups have historically lacked fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health, and these inequities have increased the risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Many of these same factors are contributing to the higher level of obesity in some racial and ethnic minority groups.

To reduce obesity rates for all, states and communities should make it easier to find affordable, healthy foods and to access safe and convenient areas to exercise. Individuals can take steps such as being active and eating a healthy diet to support optimal immune function and manage chronic diseases—such as diabetes and heart disease—that worsen COVID-19. The CDC also recommends getting enough sleep and finding healthy ways to cope with stress.

“While system and environment changes can take time, we can take small steps now to maintain or improve our health and protect ourselves during this pandemic,” the CDC noted.

Calculate your BMI using the following formula. While BMI is a useful screening tool, it is not diagnostic of your health status. Your healthcare practitioner will perform various health exams and consider several factors to evaluate your overall health and risk of conditions and diseases.

View Sources

Adult Obesity Prevalence Maps. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/prevalence-maps.html. Page last reviewed September 21, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.

Press release. New CDC data finds adult obesity is increasing. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s0917-adult-obesity-increasing.html. Issued September 17, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.

Summary statement. Obesity, Race/Ethnicity, and COVID-19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available online at https://www.cdc.gov/healthequity/index.html. Page last reviewed September 17, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.