The number of adults in Utah considered to be at an unhealthy weight has remained roughly the same over the past decade — but individuals here who are already overweight are becoming more so, according to a new study released by the state.

And it’s leading to widespread health problems and hundreds of premature deaths each year. Michael Friedrichs, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health who led the research published Thursday, calls it “the hidden epidemic.”

“These people are at higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, as well as certain types of cancer,” he added. “This shift is really concerning.”

In Utah, three in five adults are at an unhealthy weight, the data shows. Of those, the percentage in the obesity category has jumped to 41.7% up from 32.8% in 1999. If the trend doesn’t change, soon more than half of those at an unhealthy weight will be obese.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Overall, Utah still has some of the lowest obesity rates in the country. About one in four adults in the state is obese, but 40% of adults nationwide are obese. (The data counts people with a body mass index of 30 or more as obese and those above 25 as overweight.)

The state’s numbers have remained relatively static since 2011, when 23.4% were obese. Twenty years ago, though, the numbers hovered around 12%. Public health experts say that might not seem like a fast jump, but it has significant consequences.

People who are obese are more likely to have heart attacks — a risk that jumps 40 percent just between the overweight and obese categories — and to develop diabetes. Additionally, Friedrichs said, the cost for medical care goes up exponentially.

In 2008, the estimated yearly health care cost of obesity was $147 billion in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Friedrichs believes there’s an emerging mindset that obesity is normal or “it’s just the way of the world.” Even President Donald Trump’s doctor categorized him as obese as part of his 2019 physical exam.

“But we should be paying attention,” the epidemiologist said. “All across society we need to work on this.”

The health department has started a healthy living program to help residents make better food and exercise choices — including going into schools and workplaces to talk about it.