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Experts say obesity still a health risk
Updated: 2005-05-02 10:49

Now that the government says fat might not kill so many of us after all, is it OK to be just a little pudgy? Maybe, but before celebrating with a hot fudge sundae, keep in mind the overriding message: Being too overweight really is a serious health risk.

Picture dated July 2003 shows a young girl walking with her mother. A survey by the National Centre for Social Research showed that obesity among under-11s is rising fastest in poor, inner-city households. [AFP]
The new data, released by the government two weeks ago, confirm that obesity can kill, even if the numbers are squishy, said Dr. David Katz, a Yale University obesity researcher. "Clearly it isn't a license to gorge yourself."

Even so, the new report, drastically reducing the number of annual obesity-linked deaths, was confusing and quickly became a target for critics of "food police" efforts by the government.

"At first I got a chuckle out of it thinking now I don't have to work as hard, but then I thought, how can something like that be possible?" said Lisa Cusumano, a 40-year-old mother of five from suburban Carol Stream who is trying to lose 60 pounds.

The report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists didn't challenge the long-held view that being at least 50 pounds overweight is risky. But it did suggest that being even as much as 40 pounds overweight seems to protect people more from an untimely death than being at a normal weight.

Experts say that seeming contradiction has appeared in smaller health studies and again challenges the usefulness of the body-mass index — a formula using height and weight to calculate how heavy a person should be.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a restaurant industry-backed group, responded to the new data with full-page newspaper ads proclaiming, "Americans have been force-fed a steady diet of obesity myths by the 'food police,' trial lawyers and even our own government."

University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, whose book "The Obesity Myth" argues that America's fat obsession is unhealthy, says the new report confirms that "there's a very wide range of body mass that is compatible with good health."

The new estimate that obesity kills 25,814 Americans yearly conflicts with much larger estimates from different CDC scientists last year.

Newspaper editorials criticized the CDC; some have even called for the resignation of agency chief Dr. Julie Gerberding. She co-authored a report last year suggesting obesity contributes to 400,000 deaths yearly and her agency used that flawed data to warn that obesity is becoming a top killer.

The CDC later admitted a calculation error.

Some experts say the new, much lower estimate of nearly 26,000, published April 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is likely the most accurate. But Gerberding says the CDC won't use it in its public health campaigns.

Instead, the agency likely will use a range of obesity mortality estimates while continuing to emphasize that being too fat contributes to costly health problems even when it isn't deadly, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

The CDC "doesn't want to get fixed on a bottom-line number" because the science behind calculating obesity-related deaths is evolving, he said.

Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of Wellness Institute at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said calculating death rates from a specific condition is difficult, especially when people have multiple ailments like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Also, Kushner said, focusing on death rates doesn't address quality of life and the health problems that often accompany being overweight and obese — conditions that make people feel lousy even if medication can sometimes prolong life.

The April 20 report also prompted criticism for relying on the body-mass index, the government's standard measure of overweight and obesity.

Using that standard, anyone with a BMI of 25-29 is considered overweight, and a BMI of 30 and above is obese. That means a 6-foot, 190-pound man is almost in the overweight zone.

But the height-to-weight ratio doesn't consider muscle mass, and recent calculations stirred controversy by proclaiming that based on BMI, sizable numbers of professional football players and even some basketball stars are overweight.

"BMI has to be taken with a grain of salt," said Dr. Samuel Klein, director of Washington University's Center for Human Nutrition. "People who are more muscular will have a higher BMI" but are not necessarily overweight.

Greg Penman, a business analyst from Naperville, Ill., who weighs over 300 pounds, says the conflicting reports haven't changed his determination to shed fat.

Already 20 pounds lighter since joining Weight Watchers in January, Penman said he's sick of not being able to fit in normal-sized chairs and feeling out of breath.

He says the obesity flap is just the latest example of "flip-flopping" medical studies.

"I tend to think I've become a little bit numb to it," said Penman, 31.

A recent editorial in the New Jersey newspaper, Asbury Park Press, offered a solution.

"How should we respond to these mixed signals? By ignoring them and using common sense in our eating and exercise habits," the editorial said.

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