THURSDAY, June 2, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Backing off from one of her agency's own studies just seven weeks ago, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly reiterated the health dangers posed to the U.S. by the epidemic of overweight and obese people.
A CDC report published in the April 20 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggested health risks to the average overweight American might not be as bad as once thought.
But that's not what CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a news conference today in Atlanta.
"Obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country," said "We have had a dramatic increase in the proportion of people in our world that have obesity. That constitutes, in my view, a serious epidemic."
Over the last 20 years, rates of obesity and overweight in the U.S. have skyrocketed, with 65 percent of adults now overweight and 30 percent obese. At the same time, the number of obese youngsters has doubled to comprise 16 percent of all American children.
The news conference was intended to help dispel confusion surrounding the issue -- namely, the CDC report, which found that people who are overweight were actually at a lower risk of dying than people of normal weight. The CDC also reported that obesity accounts for 25,814 deaths per year, down from a previous estimate of 365,000.
Gerberding appeared to attribute these figures to research methods, including the difficulty of obtaining accurate estimates of deaths attributable to obesity.
"Obesity is not listed on death records," she explained. "We have to rely on extrapolations."
"Studies have used different methods and sources and have come to different conclusions, so we have needed to get scientists in one room to straighten this out," Gerberding added.
As for the contention that modestly overweight people had lower death rates than normal-weight people, Gerberding said "there are some statistical aspects to the study, and the author herself would not claim that overweight was protective of ill health." The study's author was Katherine Flegal, a senior research scientist for the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.
Gerberding then specifically cited the dangers of being overweight.
"People who are obese experience an increased rate of hypertension, diabetes, renal failure and some cancers," she said. "People who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of arthritis and mobility problems, sleep problems and breathing problems."
Overweight and obese children are increasingly being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, once a condition confined to adults, she emphasized. Many also have high blood pressure and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke. "We may be seeing a very different profile of health status in our country, and that's a very, very worrisome outlook if we don't take steps to fix it," Gerberding said.
At the same time, Gerberding pointed out, the financial costs associated with excessive weight gain are astronomical, with about $52 billion attributed to obesity in 1995 and $75 billion in 2003.
What we don't know about overweight and obesity, however, may one day kill us, she said.
Health experts still don't know how to estimate the impact of the epidemic on death rates or how children will be affected in the long term, the CDC director said.
And also, no one knows how to help Americans take off weight and keep it off, she concluded.
The CDC, Gerberding said, is committed to finding many of these answers with a new program combining 15 existing divisions within the agency and a new marketing strategy intended to get up-to-date information to the public in a timely fashion.
"We want to be very clear. It is not okay to be overweight," Gerberding said. "Overweight is a health problem and people need to understand that it is relevant to their personal health as well as the health of their children and families."
The CDC has more on overweight and obesity.