A century of US data documents obesity’s racially skewed rise

Nature
Midshipmen at dining table eat in formation, CIRCA 1900

Midshipmen in the United States in around 1900. A study found that body-mass index, a gauge of obesity, has increased with the generations during the twentieth century. Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty

Metabolism

A century of US data documents obesity’s racially skewed rise

An analysis also finds that obesity is common at a much younger age among people born in the early 1980s than those born in the late 1950s.

In the United States, the rise in obesity over the past 40 years has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic people. But it has been difficult to discern how this disparity has changed historically.

To fill the gap, Yang Claire Yang and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and their colleagues combined data from four large studies whose participants had been born throughout the twentieth century. The researchers divided the participants into cohorts based on birth year and analysed participants’ body mass index (BMI), a proxy for obesity.

The team found that BMI rose more steeply from early adolescence to late middle age in more recent cohorts than in earlier ones. Within individual cohorts, average BMI was higher for Black and Hispanic people than for White people, and the BMI disparity between Black and White people was greater for more recent cohorts.

Socioeconomic inequality did not fully account for the racial or ethnic disparities in BMI. The stress of discrimination might partly drive these disparities, the authors say.

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