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As America’s obesity rate climbs, 4 steps you can take to help yourself and others

More than two out of every five adults in the United States have obesity, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.

In the last two decades alone, the obesity rate in the United States has climbed about 40%.
In the last two decades alone, the obesity rate in the United States has climbed about 40%.Read morePatrick Sison / AP

More than two out of every five adults in the United States have obesity, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the skyrocketing rate — which some experts anticipate will reach 50% by 2030 — is alarming, it’s not surprising. We, as a country, have been trending in this direction for quite some time. In the last two decades alone, the obesity rate has climbed about 40%.

We know obesity — which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above — is one of the nation’s leading public-health problems. We know it increases our risk of developing health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even certain cancers.

We also know obesity is a complex health condition — it’s not simply a result of eating too much and not moving enough. A combination of factors, including our genes, play a role in our risk of developing obesity.

So how can we reverse this public health crisis?

1. Maintain a healthy body weight.

As with any chronic disease, prevention is key. Adhering to a healthy diet and remaining physically active are critical — but much easier said than done. For help with food-making decisions, such online resources as, an app launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serve as a valuable tool in building healthy eating habits.

Although diet and exercise to maintain weight may not be appealing to everyone, the approaches can be effective at improving weight-related markers, such as blood sugars, cholesterol and blood pressure.

2. If you are struggling with your weight, seek treatment early.

One comment we often hear from our patients is, “I just didn’t think it was bad enough to get help.” Every patient is different, and treatment approaches are designed to meet their specific needs. For example, it’s recommended that people with obesity engage in treatment that involves diet, exercise and behavior counseling sessions with a qualified clinician, such as a registered dietitian. For some, it’s recommended to add a weight loss medication, too. Bariatric surgery is the most effective and durable treatment available for people with severe obesity — a BMI of 35-39.9 with a weight-related condition, or BMI of 40 or higher.

The bottom line: The sooner someone with obesity seeks help, the better. Delaying treatment can make it more difficult to treat obesity and related serious medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea.

3. Reduce stigma around weight.

Obesity is not a moral failing. It is a complex issue that is difficult to treat. However, it is rarely treated that way. Exposure to weight bias — a prejudice against people who are viewed as having excess weight — can negatively affect one’s mental and physical health and escalate unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and avoiding physical activity.

So what can you do? An important first step is to use people-first language. For example: “person with obesity” rather than “obese person.” We avoid using diseases as adjectives for other conditions; obesity should be no different.

4. Advocate for effective treatment coverage and access.

Although effective treatment options are available, they aren’t always easy to access. In fact, only about 1% of eligible patients receive weight-loss medication or surgery. One of the main barriers to access is insurance coverage. Most insurance providers cover only three hours a year with a dietitian — far below what is recommended for weight management. Legislation that aims to increase access to these services — such as the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act — have stalled. Consider writing to your legislators, advocating for more adequate coverage and working with your employer to improve coverage of these services.

Colleen Tewksbury is a senior research investigator and bariatric program manager at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Noel N. Williams is director of the Penn Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program.