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What's the Problem?

Over the last two decades, the prevalence of obesity has increased substantially in the United States. Researchers estimate that nearly 60 million people, or 30% of adults aged 20 years and older, are obese. Now more than ever, obesity is more common among youth. An estimated 16% of children and adolescents aged 6–19 years were overweight in 1999–2000. Being overweight or obese is associated with a number of health problems including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis and sleep apnea. Weight loss and regular exercise can help improve the harmful effects of being overweight or obese. Studies show that when overweight or obese people lose 5% to 10% of their body weight, this can significantly improve their health. In 2000, the cost of obesity in the United States was more than $117 billion.

Who's at Risk?

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Anyone can become overweight or obese if they are not careful about eating healthy and exercising regularly. However, the risk for becoming overweight and obese tends to be higher among members of racial and ethnic minority populations such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. In addition, the disease tends to be more common among individuals of lower socio-economic status. Genetics and the environment are also thought to play a role in increasing the likelihood of gaining weight. Nonetheless, dietary choices and physical activity are the major known contributors for overweight and obesity. Factors that influence overweight or obesity include:

  • Behavior—eating too many calories while not getting enough physical activity.
  • Environment—home, work, school, or community can provide barriers to, or opportunities for, an active lifestyle.
  • Genetics—heredity plays a large role in determining how susceptible people are to overweight and obesity. Genes also influence how the body burns calories for energy or stores them as fat.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes, people can prevent and reduce overweight and obesity by incorporating regular exercise and a healthy diet into their daily lives. People who are overweight or obese can improve their lives by reducing their calorie intake and increasing their physical activity. In order to maintain one's weight, the amount of calories used should equal the amount of calories consumed. However, many people eat more calories than they burn each day. It is best to consult with a physician or health care professional for advice on how to meet one's individualized needs.

Educating and working with decision makers are also important steps to preventing obesity. Policy makers can help to create healthier communities by educating the general public about the causes, prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity, as well as teaching people about the importance of balancing healthy eating with regular physical activity.

The Bottom Line

  • Overweight and obesity are rapidly growing problems in the United States and can seriously affect one's health.
  • Everyone is potentially at risk for becoming overweight or obese, however, certain ethnic populations and those with a genetic predisposition are at greater risk.
  • Combining a healthy diet and regular exercise can best prevent and reduce overweight and obesity.

Case Example

Latanya is an obese 14-year-old African American girl. When she goes for her annual visit to the doctor, he warns her that being obese puts her at risk for many serious health problems. He encourages her to change her lifestyle and eating habits. Resolved to reach a healthy weight, Latanya starts to choose healthier foods and walks several days a week. Because she lives in a dangerous neighborhood, Latanya travels by bus to a well-lighted local park where she can walk safely. One evening, tired from a long day of school, she decides to walk in her own neighborhood. Latanya is shot and fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting. As a tribute to her daughter's life, Latanya's mother becomes a champion for creating safe spaces within her community where everyone can feel comfortable exercising and can maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Related Tip Sheets

  • Page last reviewed: February 22, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 22, 2011
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