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Posted on Wed, Jan 13, 2010 : 4:50 p.m.

University of Michigan expert weighs on government study showing U.S. obesity leveling off

By Tina Reed


Obesity continues to be a major problem in the United States, but it appears the number of obese and overweight Americans has leveled off in the past decade - at least among women, according to a government study published online today.

Obesity among both adults and children didn't appear to be growing at rates seen in previous decades, the report found. Still, more than 30 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are considered obese in the U.S., according to the paper. 

The study was conducted by researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A caveat in the findings is the fact that obesity among men did increase from more than 27 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2008. While obesity among children also didn't see significant increases, researchers pointed out this wasn't true for boys between the ages of 6 and 19 at the very heaviest weight levels.

The findings been reported in the New York Times, USA Today and other major media outlets. spoke to Julie Lumeng, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan who specializes in studying childhood obesity.

Q: Why is this data such a big deal?

A: “It’s like the authoritative data every doctor relies on … I was very excited to hear this information was coming out today. The reason it’s so exciting is because, with so many efforts going on to fight the prevalence of obesity, it tells us what’s happened over the past 10 years. It’s seemed to level off, it’s not going up and up and up the way it was in the '90s, so it seems those efforts are working. The question is, 'Why?'”

Q: What strikes you about the results?

A: “Even though it’s good news that (obesity rates are) leveling off, it’s still like one in three people are obese. If one in three women are obese and 64 percent are overweight, it’s a rarity to be of normal weight. Now the question is why some men and women are a normal weight because these people are in the minority.”

Q: What do you think?

A: “It’s fascinating because it seems like a simple problem - eat less and exercise more - but if it were that easy, it wouldn’t be such a problem. It’s very complex.”

Thumbnail image for Lumeng_Julie_4x5.jpg

Julie Lumeng is an assistant professor of pediatrics at U-M specializing in studying childhood obesity. Courtesy photo from U-M

Q: What do you think about the findings related to children?

A: “It’s fascinating (about the difference in boys). Why that is is anyone’s guess, which is why this issue is so complicated. One thing you could consider (is) there’s less stigma about a boy being heavy … It’s likely to affect this demographic more if parents aren’t that concerned about it. How often do you hear a parent talk about their ‘big strapping boy?’”

Q: What can you as a researcher do with these findings?

A: “The reasons we do what we do is because the prevalence of obesity is so high. As researchers and clinicians know, this is a very complex issue, and this data reinforces what we already perceive, that this remains a very complicated problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Q: What are you researching on right now?

A: "The prevalence of obesity is higher among children of low-income populations. In particular, we are looking at stress eating in children the same way adults might eat when they're stressed. For instance, if you or I got stressed, we might think, ‘A piece of chocolate cake would make me feel better.’ And it does. It is true it releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel better. We’ve seen this in studies with animals. So we’re working on looking at - if a child is throwing a tantrum because they really want that cookie, are they looking to regulate their moods … When we look at low-income children, when they have access to food, do they binge?"

Q: But clearly this is not just an issue for those people living on a low income …

A: "No. And it shows there's no single reason for obesity. It's a problem for every demographic group … There are some things we do know, of course, TV-use, computer use, people not walking as much, junk food being more prevalent, fast food availability … I feel solving these problems is going to be a legislative issue much in the way smoking was. But we are so far from that politically because people see this as such a self-control, personal issue."

Tina Reed covers health and the environment for You can reach her at, call her at 734-623-2535 or find her on Twitter @TreedinAA.



Thu, Jan 14, 2010 : 1:05 p.m.

Fifty years ago we had TWO choices of potato chips and they were considered a "treat" to be eaten at picnics and birthday parties but how many brands do we have now? An entire aisle in the grocery store is devoted to chips of one kind or another. The food industry is responsible for that, but WE are responsible for what we buy and put in our mouths. Food advertisments really aren't much different than the ads for toys. Just because a child see the toy on TV doesn't mean the parent has to buy it for them. I definitely agree with you, Tina, obesity is an extreme health hazard and puts a person at risk for a long list of life threaten health issues. I have a 45 year old step-son who weighs over 400 pounds and his father and I have talked to him until we are blue in the face. He has been told by his doctors that he is morbidly obese, warned of the risks, his knee joints are wearing out, but he still REFUSES TO CONTROL HIS EATING, as is the case with a number of obese people I know. Their attitude is: "well, I'm this fat now, why bother"? There are numerous fat-free, no/low sugar foods on the market, but an overeaters "mind-set" seems to be that they can eat more. I think education, starting at an early age, is what it's going to take to combat this "disease". I remember nutritional information being taught in the public schools many years ago. Apparently, that isn't being done any more and I think we need to take a serious look at doing that again if we are going to make any progress in the fight against obesity.

Tina Reed

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

That fix was made, AmazonWarrior. Thanks. I've found the definition of what defines a person as being a healthy weight versus being at an unhealthy or even dangerous weight can sometimes be a moving target or even controversial. However, nearly every credible medical source recognizes obesity as a health hazard that can decrease life expectancy and quality of life, including being a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and certain cancers. (See articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other expert sources:, As far as solutions for the U.S. obesity problem, researchers say this study shows some interventions are working in the U.S. because obesity rates have been leveling off rather than growing at rates seen in previous decades. The question is, what interventions - like increasing health awareness campaigns or increasing the walkability of communities - have been working? Some food for thought: The idea about creating legislation relating to obesity is not a new idea (think about the history of legislators pushing for mandatory physical education in schools or removing soda from vending machines in schools, etc.) Many experts believe obesity is such a problem in the U.S. because of environmental reasons; i.e. people are bombarded with food advertisements and a lot of that food is filled with a lot of junk consumers might not be aware of. Some hypothesize creating legislation to regulate food companies in a way that is similar to legislation that regulates cigarette companies might help more people in the U.S. better avoid the health complications linked to poor diet. But, researchers said, this is still a hypothesis and there is not a lot of research into how, or even if, legislation would impact the obesity problem. I'm curious about what solutions others might suggest would work in fighting obesity in the U.S.. Thoughts, anyone?


Thu, Jan 14, 2010 : 10:14 a.m.

"Obesity continues to BE a major problem..... You left out a word. Good article, but what IS the solution? It certainly isn't a "legislative issue", very Orwellian - the "Food Police". Go to jail for eating a Twinkie?


Wed, Jan 13, 2010 : 11:15 p.m.

The specification of normal, overweight, and obese is arbitrary and in disagreement with the underlying evidence about the association between BMI and mortality. The death rate for men with a body mass index of 19-21 is the same as those for men who were overweight and obese (29-31). The association of obesity with higher risks of disease is false. Life expectancy continues to rise. Some in the health field believe that deliberate exaggeration of the risks of diseases or certain behaviours is justified, if not demanded, in the interests of health. Purely false logic and bias.