Background: The macrogeographic distribution of obesity in the United States, including the association between elevation and body mass index (BMI), is largely unexplained. This study examines the relationship between obesity and elevation, ambient temperature and urbanization.
Methods and findings: Data from a cross-sectional, nationally representative sample of 422603 US adults containing BMI, behavioral (diet, physical activity, smoking) and demographic (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, employment, income) variables from the 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System were merged with elevation and temperature data from WorldClim and with urbanization data from the US Department of Agriculture. There was an approximately parabolic relationship between mean annual temperature and obesity, with maximum prevalence in counties with average temperatures near 18 °C. Urbanization and obesity prevalence exhibited an inverse relationship (30.9% in rural or nonmetro counties, 29.2% in metro counties with <250000 people, 28.1% in counties with population from 250000 to 1 million and 26.2% in counties with >1 million). After controlling for urbanization, temperature category and behavioral and demographic factors, male and female Americans living <500 m above sea level had 5.1 (95% confidence interval (CI) 2.7-9.5) and 3.9 (95% CI 1.6-9.3) times the odds of obesity, respectively, as compared with counterparts living ≥ 3000 m above sea level.
Conclusions: Obesity prevalence in the United States is inversely associated with elevation and urbanization, after adjusting for temperature, diet, physical activity, smoking and demographic factors.