American Waists Continued to Grow

Obesity trend may have plateaued, but average waist size increased from 1999 to 2012

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Pants may be growing tighter than ever before. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers tracked US waist sizes from 1999 to 2012 and found widespread increases.

During that same time, rates of abdominal obesity increased then plateaued.

Blacks and Mexican-Americans in particular increased their waist sizes, while obesity affected patients across the board.

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Earl Ford, MD, MPH, and two of his colleagues from the CDC in Atlanta tracked average waist size and abdominal obesity in US adults from 1999 to 2012.

During the study period, the authors found significant increases for both measures in 32,816 patients.

“Our results support the routine measurement of waist circumference in clinical care consistent with current recommendations as a key step in initiating the prevention, control, and management of obesity among patients,” the CDC team wrote.

The average waist size went from 37.6 inches in 1999 to 38.8 inches in 2012.

White women aged 40 to 49 had the largest increases, followed by black men aged 30 to 39, Mexican-American men aged 20 to 29, Mexican-American women aged 70 or older and black women aged 30 to 39.

Obesity was measured using a height- and weight-based measure called body mass index or BMI.

Dr. Ford and team found that 46.4 percent of patients were abdominally obese in 1999-2000. By the time the study concluded in 2012, 54.2 percent were abdominally obese.

Increases were seen in white, black and Mexican-American men and women.

Although overall obesity increased, the authors said it remained steady from 2003 to 2012.

“At a time when the prevalence of obesity may have reached a plateau, the waistlines of US adults continue to expand,” the authors wrote.

The imbalances between obesity and waist size “remain speculative,” the authors wrote. They noted that medication side effects and a lack of sleep could be factors.

"The increasing waist size is indicative of metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes," said Dr. Barry Sears, President of the non-profit Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, MA and creator of The Zone Diet. "This indicates that insulin resistance is moving from the fat cells to the liver and the muscle cells. In essence, the inflammation in the fat cells is spreading like a tumor to other organs.

"As long as the excess body is concentrated in the hips, the medical consequences are relatively benign. Once the excess body is concentrated in the visceral fat that contributes to the increased waist diameter, you are in significant metabolic trouble," said Dr. Sears, who was not involved in this study.

"This explains why our diabetes epidemic began to really accelerate starting in 1995 and continues to do so," he said.

"According to the American Diabetes Association, there are approximately 80 million Americans with metabolic syndrome, meaning there is a ticking time for increased diabetes. Once you have diabetes, you are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's, which is being referred to as 'diabetes type 3.' Likewise your risk for heart disease increases two to four times. So the medical consequences of this increased waist line will be increased diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's," Dr. Sears said.

The research by Dr. Ford and team was published online Sept. 16 in JAMA.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 12, 2014
Last Updated:
September 22, 2014