Obesity is an urgent health issue, nationally and globally. Over the past twenty years, obesity rates have drastically increased—in some cases tripling—in countries in North America, Europe, Australia, and the South Pacific. This pandemic places enormous pressures on health care systems. It is estimated that the United States spends about $160 billion on obesity in direct medical cost and that its indirect costs are at least $450 billion annually (see McKinsey Quarterly, October 2010).

And this health emergency is not limited to industrialized nations, either. The World Health Organization estimates that in many developed countries, obesity now accounts for 2 to 7 percent of health care spending—and rising. Obesity rates are rapidly increasing in developing nations, as countries urbanize and globalization allows for the economies of scale that provide access to cheaper processed foods and fast food restaurants. In the past ten years, the number of overweight individuals has surpassed that of the world’s hungry.

Obesity affects millions of people in the United States resulting in serious, preventable health consequences. Each year, obesity contributes to an estimated 112,000 preventable deaths (see “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation”, January 2010).

Studies have shown that obesity places adults at increased risk for several threatening conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems as well as some cancers. In addition children that are overweight or obese have increased risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and conditions such as asthma. According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, obesity affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the U.S.

Of those affected, a disproportionate number are minorities or members of lower-income communities. Social and economic factors contribute to Latinos being at higher risk of obesity than the general U.S. population. In the United States, more than 27% of Latinos live below the poverty level. Studies have shown a correlation between economic status and obesity; poorer people tend to be overweight. This seemingly contradictory correlation is due to the low cost of high-fat foods like fast food and junk food, compared to the high price of fresh fruits and vegetables. Latino neighborhoods have fewer parks and green grocers than non-Latino neighborhoods. Studies have also shown that many non-US-born Latinos who were previously thin and healthy become overweight/obese after immigrating to the U.S.

There are a multitude of factors to overcome for those who struggle with obesity. Factors such as consuming too many calories, not getting enough exercise, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can all contribute to the risk for obesity. An effective way to combat obesity is to identify specific contributing factors for individuals and communities and take steps to support changes in behaviors and in environments. Too often it is the case that high-calorie, fast food is the most affordable—and accessible— food available in low-income neighborhoods. Healthy foods should be affordable and accessible to all citizens. It is also often the case that lower income neighborhoods lack recreational facilities, inviting and safe. All children should have access to safe places to exercise such as playgrounds, parks, community centers, and bike paths.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention