Over recent decades, in the United States and across the world, obesity rates have increased significantly. Here, we look at the numbers behind the surge.

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Because obesity is associated with a wide range of health issues — such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and mental health conditions — understanding the numbers behind this trend is more important than ever.

Recent estimates say that 39.8% of adults in the U.S. have obesity — more than 1 in 3. Globally, around 13% of adults have obesity — more than 1 in 10.

In this article, we look at the facts and figures behind obesity in the United States and the world at large, including breakdowns by states, countries, ages, and sex.

It is important to understand how organizations define obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define obesity as a BMI of 30 or higher (find our BMI calculator here).

The CDC further split obesity into the following classes:

  • Class 1: BMI of 30–34
  • Class 2: BMI 35–39
  • Class 3: BMI 40 or higher

The CDC define overweight and obesity in children, according to percentiles. For children and teens:

  • Overweight: 85th percentile or above
  • Obesity: 95th percentile or above

Obesity affects different groups in different ways. The statistics in this section look at a breakdown of obesity in the U.S. based on sex, ethnicity, age, state, and economic status.

According to data published by the CDC in 2017, obesity follows similar patterns through age in males and females.

In adult males:

  • aged 20–39: 34.8%
  • aged 40–59: 40.8%

In adult females:

  • aged 20–39: 36.5%
  • aged 40–59: 44.7%

The prevalence of obesity in people aged 60 and older was not significantly different between men and women overall or by age group.

Obesity does not impact all races equally in the U.S. The following list gives the percentage of adults with obesity in each group.

According to data published by the CDC in 2017:

  • non-Hispanic black adults: 46.8%
  • Hispanic adults: 47.0%
  • non-Hispanic white adults: 37.9%
  • non-Hispanic Asian adults: 12.7%

Obesity is not split evenly across all age groups.

According to data published by the CDC in 2017:

  • 20–39 years old: 35.7%
  • 40–59 years old: 42.8%
  • 60 years or older: 41.0%

A paper, published in JAMA in 2016, took measurements from 40,780 children and adolescents, aged 2–19, between 2013 and 2014. Overall, 17% had obesity, and 5.8% had extreme obesity.

Breaking the age groups down further:

  • 2–5 year-olds: 9.4% obesity and 1.7% extreme obesity
  • 6–11 year-olds: 19.6% obesity and 4.3% extreme obesity
  • 12-19 year-olds: 20.6% obesity and 9.1% extreme obesity

According to 2019 data, Mississippi and West Virginia have the highest rates of obesity, while Colorado has the lowest.

The states with the highest and lowest percentage of adults with a BMI of 30+ are as follows:

The states with the highest rates of obesity were:

1. Mississippi: 39.5%

1. West Virginia: 39.5%

3. Arkansas: 37.1%

4. Louisiana: 36.8%

5. Kentucky: 36.6%

The states with the lowest obesity rates were:

47. Massachusetts: 25.7%

47. New Jersey: 25.7%

49. Hawaii: 24.9%

50. District of Columbia: 24.7%

51. Colorado: 23.0%

According to the CDC, men and women with college degrees are less likely to be obese than those without a degree.

Men with the lowest and highest income had lower levels of obesity, compared with middle income groups.

Women with the highest levels of income had lower levels of obesity, compared with those who had low or middle income.

Aside from dangers to health, obesity is incredibly costly in a financial sense. In 2008, the CDC noted an estimated annual medical cost of $147 billion.

The average medical costs of people who have obesity were $1,429 more than those without obesity.

Historically, experts have obesity to be a problem in high-income countries. However, obesity in low- and middle-income countries is on the rise, especially in urban areas.

Some of these countries are facing what the World Health Organization (WHO) describes as a double burden of disease:

“It is not uncommon to find undernutrition and obesity co-existing within the same country, the same community, and the same household.”

According to the WHO, on a global basis, obesity has almost tripled since 1975. Over the same period in the 5–19 age bracket, obesity has risen from less than 1% to around 7%.

They write, “Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.”

In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults (39%) were overweight, and, of these, more than 650 million (13%) were obese.

Global figures by sex

Based on global 2016 figures from WHO:

  • 39% of men, 40% of women had overweight
  • 11% of men, 15% of women had obesity

Global figures in children

Based on global 2016 figures from WHO:

  • Globally, 41 million children under 5 were overweight or obese.
  • Globally, 340 million aged 5–19 are overweight or obese.
  • In Africa, the number of children under 5 who are overweight has increased by almost 50% since 2000.
  • Nearly 50% of all children under 5 live in Asia.

Obesity rates by country

According to WHO data collected in 2016, the following countries have the highest prevalence of obesity:

1. Nauru: 61%

2. Cook Islands: 55.9%

3. Palau: 55.3%

4. Marshall Islands: 52.9%

5. Tuvalu: 51.6%

6. Niue: 50%

7. Tonga: 48.2%

8. Samoa: 47.3%

9. Kiribati: 46%

10. Micronesia: 45.8%

11. Kuwait: 37.9%

12. United States: 36.2%

The high rates of obesity found in the Pacific Islands are predominantly due to a shift away from traditional diets toward imported foods from countries such as China, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

“Promotion of traditional foods has fallen by the wayside. They are unable to compete with the glamour and flashiness of imported foods.”

– Dr. Temo K. Waqanivalu, WHO technical officer, Fiji

The following countries had the lowest obesity rates:

1. Vietnam: 2.1%

2. Bangladesh: 3.6%

3. Timor-Leste: 3.8%

4. India: 3.9%

5. Cambodia :3.9%

6. Nepal: 4.1%

7. Japan: 4.3%

8. Ethiopia: 4.5%

9. Republic of Korea: 4.7%

10. Eritrea: 5%

11. Sri Lanka: 5.2%

12. Uganda: 5.3%

13. Madagascar: 5.3%

Obesity and overweight are becoming more prevalent in the U.S. and globally.

Obesity-related health conditions are among the leading causes of death. Obesity is usually preventable. People can speak to their doctor about ways to manage and prevent overweight and obesity.