Obesity, a topic that many of those that live in developed nations are familiar with. In the United States, it has been in the spotlight of the healthcare field as a result of increased prevalence and associated impact on chronic diseases. First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama even made a campaign called “Let’s Move!” to specifically target childhood obesity. It has been a central piece of her administration from the start. This raises the question “Why is obesity such a big deal?”
Michelle Obama at the 2nd Annual Let’s Move 2nd Anniversary Tour
Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30. Note this is different than being overweight which is restricted to a BMI that is greater than 25 but less than 30. For this post the focus will just be on obesity, the term “overweight” will just be used for illustration. All obesity specific statistics are based on the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Obesity-related conditions are among the leading causes of preventable deaths. These condition include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Obesity serves as an immense burden on the U.S. healthcare system, costing an estimated $147 billion dollars in medical expenditures in 2008 (Finkelstein, Trogdon,Cohen, & Dietz, 2009). On average, the medical costs for obese individuals are $1,429 higher than those of normal weight (Finkelstein, Trogdon,Cohen, & Dietz, 2009). Obesity seems like a costly problem but is it actually common in the U.S.?
More than 1 in 3 (34.9%) U.S. adults are obese, this represents 78.6 million people! In addition, obesity affects certain racial groups to a greater degree (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014).
The breakdown for obesity rates within significantly impacted racial groups is as follows:
- Non-Hispanic blacks (47.8%)
- Hispanics (42.5%)
- Whites (32.6%)
- Asians (10.8%)
These percentages represent the portion of the entire population surveyed that is reported to be obese. For example, 42.1% of all Hispanics are obese. That’s insane!
Children struggle with obesity, albeit not to the same degree as adults. When it comes to children and adolescents that are 2-19 years old, 1 in 6 are obese. That’s 12.7 million people! Obesity does vary among age groups to a significant degree (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014).
The age-related breakdown for childhood obesity is as follows:
- Ages 2-5 (8.4%)
- Ages 6-11 (17.7%)
- Ages 12-19 (20.5%)
Fast food and childhood obesity go hand-and-hand.
Just by the statistics alone, one can see obesity is a large problem in the U.S. When nearly half of all African-Americans are reported to be obese, the problem can’t be ignored. This begs the question “Is the United States the only country that is facing an obesity crisis?”
Of course not! Let’s look have a look at Australia. All statistics are based on the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey.
Similar to the U.S., obesity is one of Australia’s greatest public health challenges. In 2008, the overall cost of obesity to the Australian government was $58.2 billion dollars (Access Economics, 2008). Although the cost of obesity seems to be lower in Australia, are the rates of obesity vastly different?
Compared to the U.S. adult obesity rate of 34.9%, Australia exhibits an obesity rate of 28%. In 2008, there are roughly 3 million Australian adults that are classified as being obese(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2012.). Australia’s inequalities in obesity are distributed different than in the U.S. Instead of ethnic disparities, aboriginal status seems to be a large predictor of obesity in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).
The below graphs explore the sex-related variations in obesity between indigenous and non-indigenous groups:
To summarize, Aboriginal males are 1.4 times more likely to be obese and females are 1.7 times more likely to be obese than their non-indigenous counterparts.
Now let’s take a look at childhood obesity. In 2008, 1 in 4 Australian children were classified as being overweight or obese (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016). That amounts to 600,000 children that are between the ages of 5-17. Furthermore, of the 25% reported to be overweight/obese, only 8% were classified as being solely obese. That’s a little less than half of the U.S. childhood obesity rate of 17% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009). Just as seen in the U.S., there do seem to be variations in obesity rates between age groups.
Below is a breakdown of obesity rates by age group:
- Ages 5-7 (6.4%)
- Ages 8-11 (6.7%)
- Ages 12-15 (6.8%)
- Ages 16-17 (12.1%)
Hungry Jack’s: Burger King in Australia
All of the numbers and statistics listed in this post can be quite confusing to the untrained eye. You might be wondering, “What does it all mean?” No worries, below is a summary of the trends explored in this post.
- Australia has lower overall obesity rates for both adults and children.
- Certain racial groups are disproportionately obese in the U.S.
- Indigenous- Australians tend to be more obese than non-indigenous Australians.
- In the U.S. and Australia, older children seem to be more obese.
Obesity seems to have a strong foothold both in the U.S. and Australia. If this is then case, then what is being done to fight obesity in each country? Stay tuned, next week’s topic will be on the main approaches to combat obesity in the U.S. and Australia.
Access Economics. (2008) The economic costs of obesity. Diabetes Australia, Canberra.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009). National health survey: summary of results, 2007-2008. ( No.
4364). Canberra, Australia.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2013). Torres strait islander health survey: first results, australia,
2012–13. Canberra, Australia.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Australia’s health 2012: In brief AIHW.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016). Who is overweight? Retrieved from
Finkelstein, E. A., Trogdon, J. G., Cohen, J. W., & Dietz, W. (2009). Annual medical spending
attributable to obesity: Payer-and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs, 28(5), w822-w831. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.28.5.w822
Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK,Flegal KM. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the
united states, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311(8), 806-814. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.732