How fat should we be?


Minnesota 2020 recently discussed the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) numbers on obesity trends, which placed Minnesota’s obesity rate at 24.6%, just below the national average of 27%. In fact, only 11 states have obesity rates lower than Minnesota’s.

But as longtime readers of MN 2020 know, we prefer looking to trends, which are often much more revealing, rather than simply snapshot data.

The good news here – if you can call it that – is Minnesota’s trend toward greater obesity basically mirrors that of the national increase over time. The U.S. has seen a 69% increase since 1995, while Minnesota has seen a 65% increase. In the last 5 years, the U.S. obesity rate has increased by 13%, while Minnesota’s rate has increased by 12%. Graphs of both Minnesota’s and the nation’s trend lines can be seen at the CDC’s site.

But lets dig a little deeper into the numbers. Asking “How fat should we be?” might seem difficult to judge, and it is. What should be our baseline? The CDC’s target obesity rate for 2010 is 15% – twenty  years ago, no state had an obesity rate that high; today, it looks like not one state will have a rate that low come year’s end. And we know our rate is below the national average – we’re even below the Midwest regional average of 28.2%. Should that be good enough?

Digging into Minnesota’s demographics numbers from the Minnesota State Demographics Center should offer some clues. We fare decently well when obesity rates by race and ethnicity are used to predict what our obesity rate should be based demographics: the CDC’s latest data would predict a 25.5% obesity rate, while our rate is actually 24.6%.

But if our obesity rate is instead predicted based on our demographic breakdown by age, Minnesota doesn’t fare nearly so well. Obesity rates by age would predict that 20.3% of our population is obese; we’re actually a full 4.3% bigger.

These are numbers worth paying attention to; despite our otherwise-good health as a state, obesity can function as a leading indicator of coming health care troubles. It’s likely one reason our health rankings have been sliding in recent years.

If we just say that a better-than-average obesity rate is good enough for Minnesota, then our health ratings might not be better-than-average for much longer.