Is Obesity Killing Us or Not?

For a year, food people labored under the assumption that obesity had become the No. 2 killer of Americans, with some predictions threatening that it soon would overtake tobacco. In spring of this year, the Centers for Disease Control partially admitted it goofed and partially set the record straight on terminology.

In March 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (JAMA) carried a report by CDC authors that reported 414,000 deaths due to “poor nutrition and physical inactivity” in the U.S. in 2000, the most recent year for which figures were available. That number got widely reported as deaths due to obesity, and it set off much of the “obesity crisis” we see today.

CDC found some calculation errors in its first report and ratcheted that number down to 365,000 deaths in a report in January of this year. Then, this April, JAMA carried another CDC-authored report that used the specific term “obesity” but placed the number of deaths at 112,000.

A CDC spokesperson, apparently irked by yet another inquiry about apparent backpedaling, pointed out the differences in terminology between the two reports, and also noted the two studies used “different data sets, different methodologies.”

This year’s report concluded: “Underweight and obesity, particularly higher levels of obesity, were associated with increased mortality relative to the normal weight category,” but “the impact of obesity on mortality may have decreased over time, perhaps because of improvements in public health and medical care.”

While the report still concluded that obesity (defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher) increased mortality, merely being overweight (BMI of 25-29.9) was not associated with excess mortality. The study found 87,000 fewer deaths than expected were associated with merely being overweight.

Despite the apples-to-oranges stance of CDC, groups attacked the perceived inconsistencies and said the “obesity crisis” is being overblown.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, which was reported to be funded by U.S. food and restaurant businesses, took out full-page ads in several major U.S. newspapers dismissing as hype concerns about the large number of obese Americans. The ads said Americans are being “force-fed a steady diet of obesity myths by the ‘food police,’ trial lawyers and even our own government.”

 

 

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