Image: People line up to buy food at a fast food restaurant in Harlem in New York
Finbarr O'reilly  /  Reuters file
People line up to buy food at a fast food restaurant in Harlem last month. New York City officials have waged what they call a war on obesity in recent years, but the nation's only success in this battle has been that we aren't getting even heavier.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/13/2010 12:22:17 PM ET 2010-01-13T17:22:17

America’s rapid rise in obesity appears to have leveled off, with new government figures showing no significant increase in a decade.

But there's little reason to cheer. More than two-thirds of adults and almost a third of children are overweight, and there are no signs of improvement.

Experts say they’re not sure whether the lull in the battle of the bulge can be attributed to more awareness and better diets — or whether society has simply reached a maximum level of tubbiness.

“Maybe in this environment, this is as overweight as we’ll get,” said Gary Foster, director of the Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education.

Being thin is the exception
Not only are the vast majority of adults — 68 percent — overweight, 34 percent are obese; and 17 percent of children are obese. Even the youngest Americans are affected — 10 percent of babies and toddlers are precariously heavy.

The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, from the years 2007 to 2008, were contained in two reports published online Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Interactive: Map: Obesity rates in the U.S. “The absolute numbers here are staggering,” said Foster. “This isn’t something that should be celebrated.”

The new data are based on health surveys involving height and weight measurements of 5,700 adults and 4,000 children, surveys the CDC does every two years.

“In the most recent decade, we saw a slowing in the increase,” said Cynthia Ogden, the report's author and a CDC researcher who has tracked obesity for years. “It was better news, but it’s still a serious problem.”

In most age groups, black adults had the highest rates of obesity, followed by Mexican-Americans and whites.

Heaviest boys getting heavier
Among children ages 2 to 19, 32 percent were too heavy — a rate that was mostly unchanged. But disturbingly, most obese kids were extremely obese. And the percentage of extremely obese boys ages 6 to 19 has steadily increased, to 15 percent from about 9 percent in 1999-2000.

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Ogden said it was disappointing to see no decline, and troubling that the heaviest boys seem to be getting even heavier. The study didn't examine the causes, but Ogden cited the usual reasons — soft drinks, video games and inactivity — as possible explanations.

"We shouldn't be complacent. We still have a problem," Ogden said.

Dr. William Dietz, an obesity expert with the CDC, cautiously called the results promising. "We're at the corner; we haven't turned the corner," he said.

Turning point?
One factor in the plateau may be the barrage of information about the obesity epidemic — and what to do about it, said Foster.

“There’s an increased availability of healthier options than there was five years ago,” he said.

School- and community-based efforts to emphasize fitness and healthy eating may also have had some effect, although Foster acknowledges that there’s no good data to prove the point.

“I think there’s lot of things you could point to, but the truth is, it’s a confluence of factors,” he said.

One of those factors might be the intersection of genetic predisposition to obesity and an environment that encourages weight gain, Foster said.

“This is about what we can expect,” he said. “For it to go down, we’re going to have to greatly change the environment for the better.”

The obesity epidemic is considered a top White House priority. President Barack Obama has pushed to make obesity prevention part of health care reform. Overhaul measures pending in Congress include encouraging employer-based wellness programs and requiring large restaurant chains to list calories. And Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity and healthy eating habits a pet project.

People like Darrell Pender are paying attention.

Obesity "is constantly in the news," said Pender, a 42-year-old New York City computer technician who decided to get serious about fighting fat after being diagnosed with diabetes three years ago.

Pender was tempted by a TV ad for obesity surgery, but chose a less drastic option — a nutrition support group that he credits with helping him make healthier food choices. So far, he's lost 50 pounds over several months. At 350 pounds, he's still very obese, but his diabetes is under control and he feels healthier.

Msnbc.com health reporter JoNel Aleccia and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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