CDC: Despite Controversy, Obesity Is Still Epidemic

A top government health official reaffirmed obesity's standing as an "epidemic" Thursday in an attempt to quell public confusion left by controversy over the health consequences of excess weight.

The comments come several weeks after an April study concluded that being overweight does not increase the overall risk of death. The report contradicts years of public pronouncements by health officials that excess body fat is a major health risk.

It also added confusion to an already muddled picture of obesity's actual dangers. This year, controversy among CDC scientists caused the agency to vastly downgrade its widely touted mortality figures, reducing the estimated annual number of deaths due to obesity from 365,000 to 112,000.

"In my opinion, there is an epidemic of obesity in this country," Julie M. Gerberding, MD, director of the CDC, said Thursday. "I don't think it's overstating the problem to make that claim."

The CDC revised its estimates of the deaths due to obesity after it became clear that measurement methods it used were antiquated. The agency used statistical methods dating back to the 1970s that failed to account for advancements in the treatment of diseases caused by obesity.

Those diseases include heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes. But while obesity and overweight are still regarded as a risk factor for all of those problems, newer drugs and surgical treatments have made it less likely that sufferers will die.

Click here to read Web MD's "Obesity Risk Astronomical."

Trying to Regain Ground

Gerberding said that she is "very sorry" for the public confusion caused by the controversy.

It has left officials fighting to regain ground lost by the suggestion that obesity is not as dangerous as researchers previously believed.

Gerberding spent much of a Thursday meeting with reporters reiterating familiar statistics on the impact of excess weight. Among them: 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight and more than 30 percent qualify as obese, as do a startling 16 percent of children; and obesity rates among children have more than doubled over the last two decades.

Obesity's estimated costs in health treatments and lost productivity rose from $52 billion in 1995 to $75 billion in 2003, she said.

Despite debates about obesity as a cause of death, there is little argument about its impact as a cause of disease. Excess weight is known to be a major contributor to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and some forms of cancer.

"What we don't want is for this debate to continue to confuse people," Gerberding says. "We're dealing with a health threat that affects people at every stage of life."

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Also Thursday, The Institute of Medicine released a report looking at how scientists should estimate the impact of lifestyle factors like obesity on death rates.

The report concludes that officials should avoid "misleading terms like obesity" and warns researchers "not to rush to judgment about the growing prevalence of obesity."

The agency is taking the IOM report "to heart," Gerberding said.

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By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Julie M. Gerberding, MD, director, CDC. Institute of Medicine.