Americans Have Stopped Getting Taller But Continue to Get Heavier, CDC Says

A closeup of a beam scale
Photo: Patrick Sisson (AP)

Americans have continued to get bigger but not any taller since the turn of the millennium, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found. According to the report, the average adult American’s weight and waistline have both expanded over the past 18 years, while the average adult’s height has stayed flat if not shrunk a bit.

The report is based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a regularly-conducted poll and interview of Americans’ dieting and lifestyle habits. As part of the NHANES, a selected and nationally representative group of volunteers undergo physical examinations. The authors looked at data from the 1999 to 2000 version of the NHANES and compared it to data taken from the 2015-2016 version, which accounted for more than 40,000 people in total. They averaged out the weights of both adult men and women, accounting for factors like age.

From 1999 to 2000, the weight of the average adult man was 189.4 pounds, but from 2015 to 2016, that average weight had ballooned to 197.9 pounds. The average adult woman was 163.8 pounds from 1999 to 2000, but 170.6 pounds from 2015 to 2016. Both men and women saw their waistline increase by more than an inch since 1999 as well, with men now sporting an average 40.2 inch waistline and women having a 38.6 inch waistline.

Meanwhile, the average man was 69.2 inches tall from 1999 to 2000, but 69.1 inches from 2015 to 2016. And the average woman was 63.8 inches tall from 1999–2000 and 63.7 inches from 2015 to 2016.

The new report is a successor to a report by the CDC published in 2004. That report, which looked at trends reaching back to the 1960s found that American adults, men and women, had gained an average 24 pounds and grown an extra inch between 1960 to 2002.

The current rise in weight isn’t quite as dramatic as it was back then. But the findings are a sign that reported recent increases in body mass index, or BMI, is capturing an important trend. Some experts and activists have criticized BMI, which relies on our weight and height, as a flawed metric for figuring out when someone’s size might be at an unhealthy level, and have pushed for other measurements, like waist circumstance, to be used instead.

One of the arguments for letting go of BMI is that dramatic height differences, such as being very tall or short, can skew the measurement, classifying some people as obese who might otherwise be healthy, while others might have a normal BMI and still be unhealthy. But if Americans overall are getting heavier and staying the same height and if those statistics are reflected in recent BMI trends, that suggests BMI is acting as a reliable barometer of whether Americans’ bodies are becoming, on average, less healthy over time.

The bottom line is that Americans are becoming heavier on average, a trend which is reflected in this new data, and this added weight is accounting for a rise in obesity. And obesity continues to be linked to a higher risk of numerous health conditions, particularly type 2 diabetes.

So far, despite some minor successes in preventing child obesity among the very young, there’s no indication that we’re getting any better at tackling the obesity crisis as a whole.

[CDC]