WASHINGTON – Americans are losing the battle of the bulge.
Lawmakers everywhere are trying to stress just how much you are what you eat. And in this case, whatever you're eating — it's almost certainly too much.
Calories count — that's the latest message the federal government is trying to send in its plan to fight obesity.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (search) released a new Food and Drug Administration report Friday outlining one part of his agency's strategy for combating the epidemic that threatens the health of millions of Americans.
"Counting calories is critical for people trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight," Thompson said.
"Taking small steps to eat a more balanced diet and to stay physically active can go a long way to reversing the epidemic of obesity that harms far too many Americans."
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) shows that poor diet and inactivity could easily become the leading preventable cause of death among Americans. Obesity contributed to an estimated 400,000 deaths in 2000 alone.
The CDC estimates that 64 percent of all Americans are overweight, including more than 30 percent who are considered obese. About 15 percent of children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 are overweight — almost double the rate of two decades ago.
And to top it off, taxpayers foot the doctor's bill for more than half of obesity-related medical costs, which reached a total of $75 billion in 2003, according to another recent CDC study.
Not only is it important to educate people on exactly what they're putting into their mouths — and ultimately their stomachs. Physical fitness experts say it's also important to hammer home the message that physical activity is a vital component of losing weight, and keeping it off.
"America has to fall in love with exercise before we see the weight go down," fitness guru Richard Simmons (search) told Fox News. "It's not enough to put an ad on TV saying, 'instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs' — we are beyond that now."
When asked if he would recommend any of today's popular diets, including the low-carb Atkins diet, Simmons responded with a resolute "no."
"God made six food groups; if he didn't want you to have a potato, he wouldn't have made it," Simmons said.
'Calories In Must Equal Calories Out'
The FDA recommends strengthening food labeling, educating consumers about maintaining a healthy diet and weight and encouraging restaurants to provide calorie and nutrition information.
It also recommends increasing enforcement to ensure that food labels accurately portray serving size, reissuing recommendations for developing obesity drugs and strengthening research to reduce obesity and to develop foods that are healthier and low in calories.
"Our report concludes that there is no substitute for the simple formula that 'calories in must equal calories out' in order to control weight," said FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford.
HHS on Tuesday launched a national education campaign to encourage Americans to take baby steps to keep the fat off. In one TV ad, shoppers find a double chin in a grocery store. Print ads focus on close-up shots of heavy stomachs, thighs and buttocks and show how their owners may become slimmer and trimmer as they become more active.
These actions are just the latest in a string of moves being taken to get the needle down on Americas scales.
Lawmakers across the country are considering dozens of bills to promote healthy lifestyles — from testing school students for their fitness to warning restaurant diners about fat, sugar and cholesterol.
And some government leaders are trying to set a good example.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is competing against lawmakers to see who can rack up the highest number of steps over a 16-week period. In January, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced the "Texas Round-Up" to help get residents in shape. Participants are training to compete in a 6.2-mile walk or run on April 17 in Austin.
In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford invited residents to join him on a 300-mile bike ride across the Palmetto State. The springtime trip will start in the mountains and head to the Atlantic coast.
"We've got so many people who are fat, so many people who are smoking, so many who are not active, and that is really contributing significantly to our health care costs, not only to Medicaid but to the private sector as well," Granholm said during the annual meeting of the National Governors Assn. in Washington.
President Bush makes a point to run nearly every day — he even runs on a treadmill while flying on Air Force One. Bush earmarked $200 million in his budget for obesity-fighting programs.
Even the restaurant industry is working on keeping the scale needles down.
McDonald's is phasing out supersize French Fries and soda, while restaurants like TGI Friday's are even offering Atkins menu options.
Krispy Kreme even just announced that it will start offering a low-sugar doughnut.
One of Krispy Kreme's Hot Original Glazed doughnuts has 10 grams of sugar and 200 calories. More than half those calories come from fat, 12 grams of it.
But as Americans' waistlines increase, so do the number of people trying to sue fast-food chains for making them fat.
To combat that problem, the House of Representatives this week passed a bill that would shield fast-food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's from lawsuits that say the restaurants' greasy treats made customers pack on pounds. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action suits blaming McDonald's for making people fat.
"The food industry strongly believes that more energy must be put into solving the problem of obesity, and less into assigning blame for the purpose of collecting legal fees," said John R. Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.