WASHINGTON -- A new forecast on America's obesity crisis has health experts fearing a dramatic jump in health care costs if nothing is done to bring the epidemic under control.
The new projection, released Monday, warns that 42 percent of Americans may end up obese by 2030, and 11 percent could be severely obese, adding billions of dollars to health care costs.
"If nothing is done (about obesity), it's going to hinder efforts for health care cost containment," says Justin Trogdon, a research economist with RTI International, a non-profit research organization in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.
As of 2010, about 36 percent of adults were obese, which is roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight, and 6 percent were severely obese, which is 100 or more pounds over a healthy weight.
"The obesity problem is likely to get much worse without a major public health intervention," says Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with Duke University Global Health Institute and lead researcher on the new study.
The analysis was presented at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Weight of the Nation" meeting. The study is being published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The increase in the obesity rate would mean 32 million more obese people within two decades, Finkelstein says. That's on top of the almost 78 million people who were obese in 2010.
Extra weight takes a huge toll on health, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, many types of cancer, sleep apnea and other debilitating and chronic illnesses.
"Obesity is one of the biggest contributors for why healthcare spending has been going up over the past 20 years," says Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University.
The obesity rate was relatively stable in the USA between 1960 and 1980, when about 15 percent of people fell into the category. It increased dramatically in the '80s and '90s and was up to 32 percent in 2000 and 36 percent in 2010, according to CDC data. Obesity inched up slightly over the past decade, which has caused speculation that the obesity rate might be leveling off.
Finkelstein, Trogdon and colleagues predicted future obesity rates with a statistical analysis using different CDC data, including body mass index, of several hundred thousand people. Body mass is a number that takes into account height and weight. Their estimates suggest obesity is likely to continue to increase, although not as fast as it has in the past.
Finkelstein says the estimates assume that things have gotten about as bad as they can get in the USA, in terms of an environment that promotes obesity. The country "is already saturated" with fast-food restaurants, cheap junk food and electronic technologies that render people sedentary at home and work, he says. "We don't expect the environment to get much worse than it is now, or at least we hope it doesn't."
In an earlier study, Finkelstein and experts from the CDC estimated that medical-related costs of obesity may be as high as $147 billion a year, or roughly 9 percent of medical expenditures. An obese person costs an average of $1,400 more in medical expenses a year than someone who is at a healthy weight, they found. Other researchers have estimated the costs may be even higher.
If the obesity rate stays at 2010 levels instead of rising to 42 percent as predicted, then the country could save more than $549.5 billion in weight-related medical expenditures between now and 2030, says study co-author Trogdon.
Patrick O'Neil, president of the Obesity Society, a group of weight-control researchers and professionals, says that these new projections "indicate that even more people will be losing loved ones and others will be suffering sickness and living lives that fall short of their promise because of obesity."
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem that has been decades in the making, says Sam Kass, assistant chef and senior policy adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives at the White House. "This national conversation -- this national movement -- must continue. This is literally life and death we are talking about."
How can you lose weight and keep it off for good?
Successful dieters in the National Weight Control Registry, a group of 10,000 people who have lost 30 pounds or more and maintained that loss for a year or more, have developed many weight-control strategies. For instance, they:
- Follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet of about 1,800 calories a day.
- Keep track of food intake.
- Count calories, carbs or fat grams or use a commercial weight-loss program to track food intake.
- Walk about an hour a day or burn the same calories doing other physical activities.
- Eat breakfast regularly, often including whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
- Limit dining out to an average of three times a week, and fast food to less than once a week.
- Eat similar foods often and don't splurge much.
- Watch fewer than 10 hours of TV a week.
- Weigh themselves at least once a week.