Could the plummeting economy be contributing to expanding waistlines? Something is: new data released exclusively to NEWSWEEK from Gallup-Healthways shows that in the past year, the number of Americans considered obese has jumped by 1.7 percent—or almost 5.5 million people—and that the obese report a much lower quality of life than those who are at healthier weights.
As part of their larger Well-Being Index, Gallup pollsters began surveying 1,000 Americans a day in an attempt to create a comprehensive index able to track the daily, monthly and yearly shifts in American life. As a result, they now have more than 460,000 completed surveys offering a unique perspective on trends in the health and happiness of America. Several of the questions on the poll have to do with weight and the data from Gallup indicates that the number of individuals who have a Body Mass Index over 30 and are thereby classified as "obese," has risen from 25.1 percent of the population surveyed to 26.8 percent between the first quarter of this year and last. (BMI is the ratio of height to weight.)
This number may not sound like much, but a trend like this is significant—especially because between 2003 and 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured no real growth in American obesity levels. "A 2 percent increase in BMI is not trivial at the population level," says Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University. "This level of increase can have important public-health implications for health outcomes such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol."
So what led to this jump in obese Americans? It could be that the increased stress of the recession, combined with cost of healthy fresh foods (as compared to processed food), is resulting in conditions that promote weight gain. The research from Gallup-Healthways found that those who qualified as obese were also less likely to have access to basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.
The stress of worrying about keeping or finding a job, paying bills and keeping a stable home does take a negative toll on one's health, including weight. "There's a clear link between stress and weight gain," says Leslie Heinberg, director of behavioral services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic. "People may be more likely to eat comfort foods or eat things that are higher in fat and calories," she explains. And, this kind of weight gain can be especially unhealthy: "There's good evidence that stress hormones may play important role in holding onto fat, especially the much more deleterious visceral fat."
And a tight budget doesn't just mean stress eating, it also means we're more likely to choose foods that are cheaper, which are typically foods that are higher in fat and calories. Fast-food restaurants have reported profits in the face of the recession, with their dollar menus providing attractive options for people looking to save money.
But what will these penny-pinching dietary choices cost America in the long run? "Obesity is associated with a very large number of health consequences; as our society gets older and gets fatter, that places an enormous burden on health care," says Heinberg. "Getting people to have healthier diets and manage their weights is an important things in term of reducing the large economic burden of type two diabetes and heart disease."
That burden has been quantified in different ways. In 2006, researchers estimated that obesity-related health costs account for 5 to 7 percent of the annual health-care expenditures, or more than $100 billion. That's why a 2 percent increase in that the number of obese people in the U.S. could have a significant impact on the economy. And it's noteworthy that even before this recession hit, the country was struggling with a massive nationwide weight problem: in 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 34 percent of the population classified as obese.
According to Gallup-Healthways poll, there was a correlation between well being and weight. Those who reported a BMI of more than 30 had a much lower quality of life than those at healthier weights (a BMI of 20.0 to 24.9 is considered healthy. A BMI of 25 or over is considered overweight). These individuals were less likely to feel well rested and had a much higher burden of disease. They were more likely to suffer chronic leg and back pain and be diagnosed with depression—which could have led to the obesity, or could be brought on by their weight. And those with a higher BMIs and indicators for obesity have trouble sleeping, which then can lead to both physical and mental distress, notes Phillipa Clarke, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
The BMIs in the Gallup Poll are based on self-reported heights and weights, which means the info isn't as accurate as measurements coming from one uniform, clinical source—but that may just mean the problem is worse than we thought, since people tend to underreport their weight says Clarke. And, while BMI has fallen out of favor as a way to measure individual obesity because of variations in the amount of muscle each person carries, it's effective as an epidemiological measure, says Hu. "It should be noted that BMI is not a perfect measure of obesity. That said, increasing BMI over time does indicate an increasing trend of obesity in the population."
So what's to be done? Governments are stepping in to help encourage people to make healthier choices: In some states, the government has taken an active role in battling the bulge by banning trans fats, while the Senate is contemplating a tax on sugary drinks. In Italy, local governments are offering cash incentives for those who lose weight. But even with incentives, the odds are against those who've already gained weight, including the newly obese as reported in this Gallup survey. "We don't see a lot of decline in aggregate terms of population levels," says Clarke. "We're just seeing a steady increase."
However, there is a little encouraging news. Some experts think that the very financial crisis that may be driving more people toward obesity can help us reform health-care policy around weight gain in a meaningful way. "I think that both in terms of people's individual lifestyles and in terms of our public response, recession does give us an opportunity," says Harold Pollack, an associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration and faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago. "This is a good time to examine the ways we look at public health and say, how are we doing that, and can we do that better?" says Pollack.
One thing is for sure, changes in the way we manage our health and weight won't come a minute too soon. Because if these obesity trends continue, America could be in danger of becoming trapped under its own weight.