Florida's Obesity Rate Likely Higher Than Previously Thought. Here's Why.

Widely distributed data about the U.S. population had estimated that Florida’s obesity rate is 27.8 percent. But a University of Florida (UF) study that looked at more than 1.3 million electronic health records, puts the state’s obesity rate at 37.1 percent.

That would put Florida’s obesity rate much closer to the nation’s overall rate of 37.9 percent for U.S. adults over age 20.

A person is considered obese based on the proportion of their weight to their height. A BMI “body mass index” is what determines a diagnosis of obesity, although it’s usually an initial assessment made by a primary care physician. For an adult, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered a normal weight. Between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.

UF researchers say the main reason for the discrepancy in Florida’s obesity rate is the fact that people tend to relay their height and weight more favorably when taking surveys by phone.

“The data make all the difference,” said Matthew Gurka, the study’s senior author, in a statement. “People responding to surveys tend to over-report their height and under-report their weight.”

Health risks associated with obesity include an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and several types of cancers.

Melissa Franco, D.O., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care at Pinecrest, points out that someone with a BMI level above 25 (which is considered overweight) could benefit significantly by losing 10 pounds. Sometimes that’s enough to get a person under a BMI of 25.

“First of all, people should know where they’re at when it comes to that 25 BMI standard,” she says. “That BMI calculation may be a bit strict, but it’s generally effective. I’ve seen patients get off blood pressure or cholesterol medication after losing just a few pounds and maintaining a healthier lifestyle.”

The UF researchers calculated obesity rates in Florida by analyzing data from the OneFlorida Data Trust, a database of medical claims and electronic health records data for more than 12 million people statewide. To establish their findings, they compared those obesity rates with data from the national Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS, according to Stephanie Filipp, the study’s lead author and a UF College of Medicine statistician. The study is one of the first to make such a comparison, she said.

Here’s the key to the discrepancy with Florida’s actual obesity rate: The data collected by UF staff came from more than 1.3 million adult Floridians’ electronic health records, which are based on patients’ objective measurements during at least two healthcare visits between 2012 and 2016. In comparison, height and weight information for the BRFSS was self-reported by respondents during the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) annual 2013 telephone survey.

“There is an urgency to address and understand true rates of obesity because there’s a lot of other health-related issues that are coupled with it,” Ms. Filipp said.

More women (39 percent) than men (34.7 percent) in Florida are obese, the UF study found. By comparison, the BRFSS reported higher overall obesity rates for men (28.8 percent) than women (26.7 percent).

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