Authors: Carmen Cox
(NEW YORK) -- If waistlines keep expanding at current rates, half of the U.S. population will be obese by 2030, according to a new report.
The current trajectory, according to a two-decade trend of steady weight gain, would see 65 million more obese adults, raising the national total to 164 million. Roughly one-third of the U.S. population is currently obese.
"At the rate we're looking at right now, it's a dire prediction," said Claire Wang, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and lead author of the study that was published in the Lancet. "Something has to be done."
The rise in obesity could lead to 7.8 million more cases of diabetes, 6.8 million cases of heart disease and stroke, and more than half-a-million extra cancer cases in the U.S. -- all of which would balloon health care costs by $66 billion a year, according to the report.
But if every obese person decreased his or her body mass index by just one percent (a loss of two pounds for a 200-pound adult), as many as 2.4 million diabetes cases, 1.7 million cases of heart disease and stroke and 127,000 cancer cases could be prevented.
The need for effective, cost-effective solutions is particularly pressing as obese baby boomers move into older age.
Dr. Ken Fujioka, director of the Center for Weight Management at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego, said ever-growing waitlists for obesity clinics are already three months long.
Obesity treatments, such as bariatric surgery, are effective, but many patients are reluctant to undergo such an invasive procedure. And a dearth of drugs approved to treat obesity leaves few options for extreme weight loss short of strict diets and intense exercise programs.
For now, Fujioka said, solutions should focus on prevention. Taxes on unhealthy foods that provide empty calories, like sugary sodas, could help curb consumption and provide revenue for public policy changes, he said.
But changes have to come at the family and individual level, too. Buying a bathroom scale can help people stay on top of their weight and monitor small changes. Cutting down on TV time and ramping up regular physical exercise -- even a walk -- can help balance calories consumed and spent. And limiting access to junk food can make it easier to make healthy choices.
One glum prediction that wasn't captured in the study is the fate of the 17 percent of U.S. teens who are obese.
Keith Ayoob, director of the Rose R. Kennedy Center Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, blames inactivity for the rise in childhood obesity.
"When I was a kid, kids drank whole milk and ate junk food whenever they could get it. But we moved," he said, describing the eagerness to get outside and play. "Nowadays kids don't do that. They only leave the house to get to someone else's house to play video games."
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio