Stunning Visualizations Track America’s Remorseless Obesity Surge

Watch the average BMI increase in every single state since 1985.

Stunning Visualizations Track America’s Remorseless Obesity Surge

Nothing seems to stop America’s obesity epidemic. In the last three decades, we’ve grown progressively fatter as a nation, and all the messages about eating well and exercising more, seem to fall by the wayside. Many states now have three times as many obese people–that is, people with a body mass index of at least 30–than in the 1980s.


At his site Flowing Data, data visualization virtuoso Nathan Yau brings life to these dour trends in the form of a colorful new graphic. You can see how most states are shaded in green–indicating 10% or less obesity–in 1985. And, then, how many states have gone purple, indicating obesity rates in the 30%-plus range.


As we’ve seen before, there are marked regional trends to the obesity crisis. Most of the most obese states are in the South and Midwest (including Louisiana, which has a 36%+ rate). Most of the least obese are in the Southwest and West, including Hawaii (the least obese state) and Colorado (about 21%).


The news on obesity among kids is better than for adults. Among kids aged two to five, there was a 8.4% fall from 13.9% in 2003-2004 to 2011-2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among kids aged 6 to 11, there was a drop from 18.8% to 17.7% over the same period. If we can stop kids getting fatter, they are less likely to be super-fat when they reach adulthood.

But little seems to avert the aggregate trend among adults. Indeed, it could be time for more radical approaches to stemming obesity, including taxes on sugary drinks and fatty foods to make them more expensive (like Berkeley’s tax, which seems to be successful). A comparative analysis of 10 anti-obesity policies last year found that exercise and education funded by taxes are the most effective, and cost-effective, ideas.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.