More Than 4 in 10 American Adults Are Obese, Finds CDC

Though the obesity rate is climbing, there are steps you can take to help maintain a healthy weight.

More Than 4 in 10 American Adults Are Obese, Finds CDC

Approximately 42.4 percent of U.S. adults are obese and 9.2 percent are severely obese, according to a February 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers collected answers from a 2017-2018 survey of more than 5,000 people aged 20 and older to get their results.

In a similar 1999-2000 study, 30.5 percent of adults were found to be obese, while 4.7 percent were severely obese—meaning obesity has risen about 39 percent over two decades, while severe obesity has nearly doubled.

Obesity is linked to a number of serious medical conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoarthritis; severe obesity increases the risk of many of these complications. Studies suggest that obesity is associated with higher chances of early death, with the odds rising as weight increases.

Breaking down the numbers
In addition to the overall obesity and severe obesity numbers, the CDC report noted other key findings regarding gender, age, race and Hispanic origin: 

  • While obesity prevalence was about the same between men and women, severe obesity was more common among women. Researchers found that 11.5 percent of women were severely obese, compared to 6.9 percent of men. 
  • Obesity was roughly the same between age groups, though the prevalence of severe obesity was higher in middle-aged adults. About 11.5 percent of people aged 40 to 59 were severely obese, compared to 9.1 percent of those between 20 and 39 and 5.8 percent aged 60 and up. The report did not include information about children and teenagers.
  • Compared to other groups, non-Hispanic black adults had the highest prevalence of obesity and severe obesity, followed closely by Hispanic and non-Hispanic white adults. Non-Hispanic Asian adults had the lowest prevalence; just 17.4 percent were found to be obese and 2 percent were severely obese.

To compile their data, researchers used body mass index (BMI), an estimate of body fat using height and weight measurements. People who are obese have a BMI greater than or equal to 30. Those with a BMI of 40 or more are considered severely obese. 

Reasons for the rise
Though many issues contribute to the rise in U.S. obesity, lack of exercise is a primary factor. The government recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Less than a third of Americans actually hit that goal, according to the CDC. 

What’s more, an increasing amount of our time is spent sedentary. A 2019 JAMA Network Open study of about 27,000 U.S. adults found they spent 6.4 hours per day sitting, up from 5.7 hours eight years before. 

Another primary contributor? A Western diet filled with cheap, convenient ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat. A 2016 BMJ Open study found that these items account for about 60 percent of U.S. calorie intake—and 90 percent of our added sugars. A separate study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019, suggested that ultra-processed foods were associated with increased odds of any-cause mortality.

Tips for weight control
While the U.S. obesity problem is growing, you can take steps at home to attain or maintain a healthy weight.

  • To avoid sitting for long periods of time, break your day up with walks. Taking a brisk 20-minute stroll daily can help you hit the recommended amount of weekly activity.
  • Make small, healthy changes to your diet and repeat them until they become habits. Have nutritious snacks on hand instead of chips or candy, for example, or replace your sugar-sweetened drinks with seltzer or water. 
  • Keep a food journal. It will give you an idea of your daily calorie intake, and you may even drop pounds.

Since your age and health status can affect your weight, it may also help to speak with a healthcare provider (HCP) for advice or treatment recommendations. Together, you can work toward a healthier you.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity Among Adults: United States, 2017–2018.” February 2020.
Mike Stobbe. “About 40% of US adults are obese, government survey finds.” Associated Press. February 26, 2020.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Health Risks of Being Overweight.”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “As overweight and obesity increase, so does risk of dying prematurely.” July 13, 2016.
National Institutes of Health. “NIH study finds extreme obesity may shorten life expectancy up to 14 years.” July 8, 2014.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “State Variation in Meeting the 2008 Federal Guidelines for Both Aerobic and Muscle-strengthening Activities Through Leisure-time Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 18–64: United States, 2010–2015.” June 28, 2018.
National Institutes of Health. “Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain.” May 21, 2019.
Y Du, B Liu, et al. “Trends in Adherence to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for Aerobic Activity and Time Spent on Sedentary Behavior Among US Adults, 2007 to 2016.” JAMA Network Open. 2019 Jul 3;2(7):e197597.
EM Steele, LG Baraldi, et al. “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” BMJ Open. 2016 Mar 9;6(3):e009892.
L Schnabel, E Kesse-Guyot, et al. “Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France.” JAMA Internal Medicine. 2019;179(4):490–498.

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