Obesity and More: Are Americans Any Smarter About Healthy Living?

close-up of a man struggling to button his pants

Overweight man trying to button pants | Source: iStock

No two people share the same definition of exactly what it means to be healthy because one person’s fit might feel downright flabby to someone else. When it comes to America as a whole, though, we definitely hear a lot of bad news about our progress toward healthy living. Perhaps this is why so many people were overjoyed when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report showing smoking has been on the decline, with a pretty substantial drop just from 2014 to 2015. It certainly feels like a victory, but trying to use this small example as a way to prove the country’s getting smarter about wellness is far too simplistic.

What a lot of news outlets failed to report about the numbers on smoking is these results are just a tiny portion of a much larger report, the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey. While it’s great fewer folks are smoking, especially when you consider how it contributes to so many diseases, a closer look at the report shows we shouldn’t give ourselves a round of applause just yet.

Let’s start with obesity. More and more research is showing we’re starting to see the number of people who are extremely overweight taper off. One 2012 study reported obesity prevalence didn’t significantly change from 2009 to 2010 compared with 2003 to 2008. This doesn’t mean things got better, though. Remember, the word significant matters. Another look at the CDC report showed obesity has continued to climb just a bit higher every year, even though it’s just a small increase each time. Until we start to see the the rate of obesity falling, no one should get too excited.

doctor in a white coat holding a symbol to indicate heart health

Doctor holding a heart-shaped ball | Source: iStock

As for diabetes, the news is similarly glum. Though the report showed overall prevalence dropped in 2014, the metabolic disease saw an increase in 2015. To put things in perspective, the report noted only 5.1% of adults had diabetes in 1997 compared to 9.5% in 2015.

If we take a closer look at diet, we can see why obesity and diabetes continue to be such a huge problems. According to a recent study involving more than 9,000 participants, 57.9% of what Americans eat comes from what the researchers called ultra-processed foods. Not surprisingly, the researchers found these eats were also responsible for a huge portion of the added sugars we consume. Even if we find ourselves eating fewer calories overall, it might not matter that much if it all comes out of a package. Many people have tried and failed to end their battle against weight gain by focusing too much on calories without paying enough attention to quality.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Some evidence suggests the country is making some modest improvements. One 2015 study published in Health Affairs reported, while U.S. diets are still far from healthy, small improvements are being made. The authors think these positive changes are behind a drop in premature death and certain diseases, including heart disease.

Heart health deserves special mention here, because it’s actually one of the areas where the country has seen vast improvements. A recent report from the American Heart Association (AHA) showed the number of fatal heart attacks has steadily decreased over the last few decades. Additionally, nearly every type of cardiovascular procedure is seeing a drop in numbers.

better food choices is part of healthy living

Happy teenagers walking together | Source: iStock

Younger generations in particular, seem to be making better choices for food. According to an excerpt from NPD Group’s Future of Eating Report, millennials and Generation Z are behind a shift toward more fresh food consumption. While deciding what exactly constitutes fresh food is a matter of debate, the attitude is a step in the right direction. We get the feeling no one’s going to lump snack cakes and raw arugula in the same category.

Of course, physical activity also plays a big role in managing obesity and overall wellness. Thankfully, exercise is becoming more common. Once again, it’s a small victory, but the 2016 Physical Activity Council Report showed the number of Americans who are completely inactive fell from 2014 to 2015. Perhaps the biggest victory comes when you break down the results by generation. Millennials and Generation Z have the lowest levels of total inactivity. We may not have everyone getting the recommended amount of cardio and strength training, but at least the future is looking a bit brighter.

For the most part, Americans seem sort of stuck. For every step we take toward healthy living, we seem to take another back. While education is the first step, it doesn’t mean much if no one uses the information to make positive changes. Maybe the shifts we’re seeing among younger generations are signaling things are about to finally start looking up. Time will tell, but it’s a start.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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