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Obesity Epidemic Continues Unabated

Rate climbs again, and study cites kids' fast-food habits

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, June 15, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The tidal wave of youthful fat in the United States has not abated, and the rate for adults is no better, the latest U.S. government survey says.

"There are no surprises, only the regular surprise that the level of overweight continues to be alarmingly high," said Allison A. Hedley, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hedley is the lead author of a report on the survey, published in the June 16 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Another report in the journal points to fast food as a contributor to young people's weight problems.

The government report, from the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, contains data on two groups of more than 4,000 adults and 4,000 children gathered in 1999-2000 and then in 2001-2002. It draws the usual distinction between being overweight, obese, and "extremely obese," which is defined as exceeding given readings of body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight to height.

Overweight people have a BMI between 25 and 29.9, obese people have a BMI 30 or above, and extremely obese people chart at 40 and above.

The government and public health organizations have expressed increasing concern about the high levels of overweight and obesity in American adults and children, and the new report does nothing to ease those worries.

For adults, there was a slight change for the worse in the two surveys -- 64.5 percent overweight in 1999-2000, 65.7 percent in 2001-2002; obesity increasing from 30.5 percent to 30.6 percent; and extreme obesity going up from 4.7 percent to 5.1 percent.

The survey did not measure obesity among children ages 6 through 19. Instead, its categories were "at risk for overweight," which means a BMI greater than 85 percent of the standard weight-for-age chart, or "overweight," a BMI greater than 95 percent of the standard reading.

In the first survey, 29.9 percent of children were classified as "at risk for overweight" in 1999-2000; that rose to 31.5 percent in 2001-2002. The incidence of frank overweight rose from 15.0 percent in 1999-2000 to 16.5 percent in 2001-2002.

It is too early to tell whether growing concern about the incidence of overweight and obesity in the United States is having a positive effect, Hedley said.

"Public health programs, working to improve diet and nutrition and increase physical activity, take time," she said. "That is why we continue to monitor the situation."

The fast-food study, from researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, came in two parts, including 54 13-to-17-year-olds classified as overweight or lean on the basis of BMI readings.

In the first part, the teens were allowed to eat unlimited portions of extra-large fast-food meals (from an outlet that was carefully not identified). Each meal contained an average of 1,652 calories, more than 61 percent of total daily energy requirements. The overweight teens tended to eat more than the lean ones, the researchers found.

The second study asked the teens about their total food intake on days when they had a meal at a fast-food outlet (McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Wendy's, or Taco Bell, the five leading chains).

"The lean adolescents compensated by eating less overall that day," said Cara B. Ebbeling, a research associate at Children's Hospital, who led the study. "The overweight adolescents did not."

The study couldn't determine cause and effect, whether a high-calorie, fast-food diet causes obesity or whether it is a marker of an innate tendency to overeat, Ebbeling said.

But, she added, "the studies provide a basis to support the argument for reducing marketing of fast foods to children, to eliminate fast food in schools, and to promote reduced intake of foods containing refined starches and added sugars."

More information

The young overweight story is told by the American Obesity Association.

SOURCES: Cara B. Ebbeling, Ph.D., research associate, Children's Hospital, Boston; Allison A. Hedley, epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; June 16, 2004, Journal of the American Medical Association

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