Thursday, 5 October 2017

Obesity is falling in the USA but you'd never guess

New obesity statistics were released for the USA a few weeks ago. They got a lot of coverage, such as...


The odd thing was that all the coverage focused on individual states and didn't discuss trends over time. When I looked at the original source from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I saw why. Nowhere does it provide the figure for the whole country.

There is a page where you can look at national obesity trends but they only go up to 2013/14 when, we are told, the rate reached 37.9 per cent. This is very high by international standards, but it would be interesting to know what the figures were for 2015 and 2016.

Has the obesity rate gone up or down? RWJF will only say that 'Adult obesity rates are showing signs of leveling off' but provide no figures to show what that looks like.

In theory, you could work out the whole country's obesity rate by looking at the statewide data and adjusting the figures according to the population of each state. I haven't got time to do that and I doubt anybody else has either. 

Whatever the real figure for 2016, it seems pretty clear that it is lower than it was in 2013. It could be considerably lower. Half of the states have a rate of less than 30 per cent. Five states have a rate of 25 per cent or less, which makes them less fat than the UK. And, for what it's worth, the median (state) average is 29.9 per cent.

According to the RWJF report, only five states have an obesity rate of more than 35 per cent - all of them in the South - but the real giveaway is the fact that 'West Virginia has the highest adult obesity rate at 37.7 percent'. If the fattest state has a lower rate of obesity than the whole nation did in 2013, there can be no doubt that US obesity rates are not just 'showing signs of levelling off'. They have gone down.

You don't have to be too cynical to suspect that RWJF are deliberately concealing the national figure because they don't want newspapers to print headlines saying 'Obesity rate on the decline'. But it's not as if people are going to think American has 'beaten' obesity just because the rate has gone from being extremely high to very high. Even if it's dropped a bit, it's still going to be higher than anywhere bar Mexico and a few Pacific Islands. It could be a blip, but don't treat us like idiots. Give us the facts.

Something is very wrong if 'public health' groups are withholding a piece of evidence because it contains some mildly good news.

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