WASHINGTON – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (search) is taking a bite out of claims by lawyers targeting fast-food chains they say are responsible for the growing rate of obesity in the United States.
"No one, I think, has ever claimed that a cheeseburger is chemically addictive, right? I've never seen someone standing outside of a Wendy's shaking from withdrawal symptoms," said Todd Buchholz, a researcher with the chamber who conducted a new study of obesity (search) in America.
While fast food may not be the healthiest choice and often contains considerable amounts of fat and grease, the chamber's report says America's expanding fat problem has more to do with snacking between meals, sedentary lifestyles and overeating in general. The report found that Americans snack twice as often between meals as they did two decades ago and consume about 200 calories more each day than they did in the 1970s. At the same time, the number of calories consumed in a meal — either at home or in a restaurant — has barely changed at all.
Still, Americans are getting fatter and some lawyers want to target fast-food companies for contributing to rising health care costs as well as expanding waistlines.
The surgeon general has reported that obesity contributes $117 billion in related health care costs annually. Since 1980, obesity in adults has doubled. In 2000, 15 percent of children were considered obese.
The "food-is-the-new-tobacco" lawsuits are being led by one of tobacco companies' greatest nemeses, attorney John Banzhaf (search), who says fast-food restaurants are at fault for not making available nutritional information that will enable Americans to make smart choices.
"Numerous articles and reports have noted that the very threat of these lawsuits has already prompted many food companies to take steps to reduce obesity," Banzhaf told a House Judiciary subcommittee last month as it debated whether to pass legislation to prevent fast-food lawsuits.
Banzhaf said since the lawsuits have been launched, three have been won and two are "poised to be won."
Nutritionist Oz Garcia told Fox News that Banzhaf's argument has merit, saying that messages of moderation don't work for those suffering from obesity.
"We have got well over half the population — almost 65 percent of Americans — overweight. They don't know how to be moderate. The way that fast-food markets its information isn't to get you to be moderate, it's to get you to buy supersized foods that do make you fat," he said.
Garcia added that low-income households make up a major portion of those enveloped in the "expanding bubble of obesity."
"Part of the problem is that you do have across the board people making terribly bad choices, poor people especially when it comes to how they should eat, because there are such powerful interests on the side of food commerce and food industry to make people that don't have access to good, quality information about food and what it does to your body," Garcia said.
But dietician Ruth Kava, who helped conduct the chamber's study with Buchholz, said that eliminating fast food altogether won't create healthy Americans.
"If you cut out all the french fries from all Americans' diets, that doesn't mean that they would have good diets, or be healthier, and this is part of the problem with this good food, bad food idea," Kava said, adding that fast-food restaurants have actually helped to increase the amount of protein Americans eat.
Fox News' Doug Luzader contributed to this report.