America: More Obese than Overweight

Posted on by Susan Blumenthal, M.D.

(Written in Collaboration with Cathy Ren)

America has reached a new milestone in the obesity epidemic. In a recently released report, 67.6 million Americans over the age of 25 were obese and 65.2 million were overweight in 2012. This means that for the first time in history, there are more obese than overweight Americans, a very disturbing and health-damaging trend. Overweight individuals have a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and these risks are even greater for obese people.

The definitions of obesity and overweight are based on a person’s body mass index, or BMI, which is calculated from height and weight. A normal BMI lies within the 18.5 to 24.9 range. A person with a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 is considered overweight, while a BMI of 30.0 or higher indicates the presence of obesity. (Calculate your BMI here.)

Growing waistlines mean expanding medical costs. Obesity is associated with diseases that affect almost every organ system of the body including higher rates of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, depression, reproductive problems, respiratory disease, arthritis and gout. These chronic conditions lead to increased physician and hospital visits with enormous medical costs: $147 billion is spent on obesity annually. The bottom line: much needs to be done to effectively reduce the obesity epidemic in America.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp program, provides $75 billion dollars in nutrition assistance to over 45 million Americans each year, 50% of whom are children. SNAP beneficiaries experience higher rates of obesity compared to many other groups, including low-income individuals who are eligible for benefits but choose not to participate in the program. An analysis of data from the USDA’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that 40% of SNAP recipients were obese during 2007-2010, compared to 32% of SNAP-eligible non-participants and 30% of higher-income Americans. This doesn’t mean that participating in SNAP makes you obese, but it indicates that there may be some problems related to the foods and beverages consumed by this population group.

While SNAP recipients actually consumed slightly fewer calories than the rest of the U.S. population, they drank more soda, ate fewer fruits and vegetables, and in general had less healthy diets as compared to the general population. This may in part be attributable to the higher prices of healthy foods, which have been found to cost at least $1.50 more per day than unhealthy foods. This may seem like a relatively small amount, but buying healthier food can add up to $550 in extra expenses each year, a significant burden for low-income families. Another possible explanation may be linked to transportation challenges experienced by SNAP beneficiaries, as 2.3 million U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and don’t have access to a car.

However, progress is being made in addressing obesity among SNAP recipients. The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA has demonstrated that well-designed nutrition education programs for SNAP beneficiaries can result in healthier food choices. Today, more SNAP dollars are being spent at farmers’ markets, with the USDA awarding $31.5 million to support programs that encourage SNAP recipients to buy more fruits and vegetables. These initiatives are steps in the right direction. However, based on findings from the NHANES report, enhanced nutrition education for SNAP recipients is especially needed to increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as decrease consumption of soda and whole milk, which contribute empty calories to participants’ diets.

Given that SNAP is a $75 billion program with 1 out of 7 Americans participating, much more needs to be done to ensure healthy eating and the prevention of obesity among program beneficiaries.

Learn more about strategies to address obesity at


  1. Kaplan, Karen. “Obese Americans now outnumber those who are merely overweight, study says”. LA Times. 22 June 2015. <>.
  2. “About Adult BMI”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. <>.
  3. Sifferlin, Alexandra. “More Than Two Thirds of Americans Are Overweight or Obese”. TIME. 22 June 2015. <>.
  4. “Obesity Prevention Source: Health Risks”. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. <>.
  5. Delaney, Arthur. “Food Stamp Recipients More Likely To Be Obese, Study Finds”. Huffington Post. 5 May 2015. <>.
  6. Condon, Elizabeth et al. “Diet Quality of Americans by SNAP Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2007–2010”. United States Department of Agriculture. May 2015. <>.
  7. Polis, Carey. “Eating Healthy vs. Unhealthy Will Cost You $550 More Per Year, Study Reveals”. Huffington Post. 5 Dec. 2013. <>.
  8. Ver Ploeg, Michele, Vince Breneman, Tracey Farrigan, Karen Hamrick, David Hopkins, Phillip Kaufman, Biing-Hwan Lin, Mark Nord, Travis A. Smith, Ryan Williams, Kelly Kinnison, Carol Olander, Anita Singh, and Elizabeth Tuckermanty. “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food—Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress”. USDA Economic Research Service. June 2009. <>.
  9. “Study Shows Strong Nutrition Education Can Lead to Healthier Food Choices by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Recipients”. USDA Food and Nutrition Service. 5 Dec. 2013. <>.
  10. Karst, Tom. “Farmers markets redeem more SNAP benefits”. The Packer. 29 June 2014. <>.
  11. Blumenthal, Susan et al. “SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Improving Nutrition in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”. Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. <>.
  12. Blumenthal, Susan and Greeshma Somashekar. “A Nutrition Prescription for a Healthier America”. Huffington Post. 26 March 2013. <>.
  13. Blumenthal, Susan, and Stephanie Heung. “Tipping the Scales on Obesity: How to Sell Health.” Huffington Post. 17 July 2014. <>.
  14. Blumenthal, Susan, and Kristy Blackwood. “Transforming Food Deserts and Swamps to Fight Obesity.” Huffington Post. 27 August 2013. <>.

Comments are closed.