Food industry faces challenges as obesity rate rises

by Keith Nunes
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Data published Feb. 23 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the prevalence of obesity among adults aged 20 and over continues to rise. The data indicate 30.6% of U.S. adults are obese, up from 29.9% in 2014. Obesity rates climbed steadily during the nearly 20 years covered in the data, and the incidence of obesity has jumped more than 50% since 1997. The data offer a stark reminder that should serve as a warning to food and beverage industry executives that the industry may be held to account through future legislative or public health initiatives.

The C.D.C. figures were derived from the National Health Interview Survey, which included household interviews conducted between January and September 2015. Within the scope of the survey, obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or more. The measure published by the C.D.C. was based on self-reported height and weight.

For both genders combined, the prevalence of obesity was highest among adults aged 40-59, followed by adults 60 and over. Adults between the ages of 20 and 39 had the lowest prevalence of obesity.

The effects of obesity on individuals and society are dramatic. Individual health consequences may range from the onset of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and many others.

A startling study published March 10 by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that nearly half of California adults have either prediabetes, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, or what the researchers called undiagnosed diabetes.

Conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and commissioned by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the study analyzed findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey together with the California Health Interview Survey and evaluated data from over 40,000 respondents.

The study estimates 13 million adults in California, or 46%, have prediabetes or undiagnosed diabetes, while another 2.5 million adults, or 9%, already have been diagnosed with diabetes. Combined, the two groups represent 15.5 million people — 55% of the state’s population. Because diabetes is more common among older adults, the study’s finding that 33% of young adults aged 18 to 39 have prediabetes is of particular concern, according to the researchers.

The costs of obesity to society are dramatic. In 2008, the C.D.C. estimated the costs for medical care associated with obesity and the chronic conditions it causes to be approximately $147 billion. Productivity costs nationwide due to obesity-related absenteeism were found to range between $3.38 billion ($79 per obese individual) and $6.38 billion ($132 per individual). As the incidence of obesity has risen since 2008, it must be acknowledged that the costs today are much higher.

A number of factors contribute to the onset of obesity, including diet, physical inactivity and personal responsibility, but the food industry will continue to be singled out as a key contributor to the problem. As a result, numerous local, state and federal initiatives are under consideration.

The America Beverage Association has been at the forefront of defending the category against proposed taxes to be levied on sugary beverages. Such legislative initiatives are being debated in California, Illinois and the city of Philadelphia.

On March 1 the Canadian Senate issued a report calling for lawmakers to assess the options for the taxation of sugar-sweetened and artificially-sweetened beverages. In addition, lawmakers were tasked with evaluating ways to increase the affordability of healthy foods, including the introduction of subsidies and the removal or reduction of existing taxes.

Food and beverage companies have done a good job of offering consumers choices ranging from healthy to indulgent. Yet the rising rate of obesity suggests the problem is not lessening. The erosion of public health and the costs associated with it will continue to prompt lawmakers to seek remedies, and the food industry, unfortunately, is directly in the path of change.

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