Obesity rates in adults rose to 35.7 percent from 30.5 percent between 1999 and 2010, compared with rates that nearly doubled in the two previous decades.

Share story

The prevalence of obesity in the U.S. largely leveled off over the past decade, even as some individual groups, such as boys from ages 6 to 19, saw increases, according to government data.

Obesity rates in adults rose slightly to 35.7 percent from 30.5 percent between 1999 and 2010, compared with rates that nearly doubled in the two previous decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday. The rate among boys climbed 29 percent, surpassing girls for the first time, according to the Atlanta-based health agency.

“There is really a slowing down of the rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Cynthia Ogden, a CDC epidemiologist and the report’s lead author, by telephone. “Those increases we saw earlier are not continuing, and we may be seeing a plateau.”

More than 78 million U.S. adults, or a third of the population, and about 12.5 million children were obese in 2009-2010, according to studies reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They are part of a continuing CDC effort to track obesity rates with updated numbers every two years.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which weighs and measures participants, producing the most accurate details available, said Cynthia Ogden, a CDC epidemiologist, by telephone. The analysis found virtually no changes since 2007, Ogden said.

Until recently, the focus toward solving obesity was on fad diets and possible designer drugs, according to Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Those won’t work on a national scale because obesity is difficult to reverse once established, he said.

Now that public-health authorities have targeted obesity as a driver of illness and death, akin to smoking or traffic fatalities, they are increasingly finding ways to change the environment to encourage healthier eating and physical-activity habits early in life, he said.

Obesity has been shown to boost the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and stroke, the CDC has said. Americans spend about $147 billion a year on obesity-related health costs.

“It was all about how to remedy obesity once it occurred; the problem is it is a really hard problem to reverse, so you want to prevent it,” Rudd Center’s Brownell said.

The U.S. Health and Human Services department has awarded more than $119 million to states and territories for programs to reduce obesity since 2009, including increasing physical activity and improved nutrition.

More than a dozen states have also banned soda from school vending machines and lunch lines, and some restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Darden Restaurants, have committed to cut calories in their foods.

According to the reports, men became more obese in the latest decade, rising to 35.5 percent at the end of the decade from 27.5 percent. The rate among women didn’t significantly change over the time period, finishing at 35.8 percent.

Among all sexes and age groups, women 60 and older had the highest prevalence, with 42.3 percent.

Obesity rates for boys ages 2 to 19 rose to 18.6 percent in 2009-2010 from 14 percent in 1999-2000, while the rate for girls was little changed at 15 percent.

One reason why boys may be getting obese faster than girls is the ever-growing use of video games, the Internet, and electronic devices, said Jacob Warman, chief of endocrinology at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York.