Women and the Obesity Epidemic: What the Latest Numbers Reveal

Women and the Obesity Epidemic: What the Latest Numbers Reveal

The average dress size has gone up—here's why the numbers matter beyond the dressing room.

The average American woman now wears a Misses size 16-18, or a Woman’s plus size 20, according to a study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. That’s a significant leap from the size 14 average of 10 years ago.

While the study’s authors point out that the fashion industry is failing to design clothes for the average woman, their findings reach far beyond the dressing room: they highlight a number of alarming health trends among US women.

Obesity rates—especially among women—are on the rise. About 41 percent of US women are obese, and almost 10 percent have severe or morbid obesity, according to data from the 2015-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. These numbers are up compared to the 2007-2008 survey; severe obesity in women jumped 2.4 percentage points, while men saw a 1.4 percentage point jump, to about 5 percent.    

Obesity is a risk factor for several health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In fact, a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than half of the cancers diagnosed in women—including breast and ovarian cancer—are linked to being overweight or obese.

What’s behind the numbers?
The reasons for the obesity epidemic are complex: causes include things like a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods, along with high fat contents in affordable foods.

But the CDC also points to the fact that 34 percent of American adults are inactive and 20 percent are not physically active enough. Regular physical activity not only helps to slim your waistline, but it can also reduce your risk of life-threatening medical conditions.

Women get less physical activity than men too, according to the CDC: about 33 percent of women are inactive, compared with 36 percent of men.

You can fight the numbers
These numbers matter because they’re rising right along side America’s death rates. National mortality rates rose between 2014-2015 alone, due in large part to chronic illnesses associated with obesity.

Regardless of your dress size, you can begin your weight loss journey today by starting a food and activity journal. You’ll discover habits that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise; there may be entire food groups—like nuts or dairy—that you’re neglecting and others that you’re showing way too much love—like sugar or carbs.

Keep your journal for at least a week so you can pick up on patterns and plan a leaner, more nutritious diet around what you learn. It’s also useful information if you decide to reach out to a healthcare provider, nutritionist or personal trainer for help. Research shows that people who keep food journals are more successful at losing weight and are more likely to keep it off.

Get enough exercise
Remember physical activity as well. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity like biking or running every week. Adults should also do strength training, exercising every major muscle group, on at least two days a week.

Haven’t been moving in a while? Start with walking. Just 30 minutes of walking a day can clear your mind and improve your mood. Plus, it’s been found to lower your risk of conditions like high blood pressure, arthritis and stroke. Take a furry friend along with you or start a walking group for an added social benefit: it’ll make exercise more enjoyable and socializing is good for your emotional and physical health too.

Medically reviewed in February 2019.

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