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Confusion Reduced on Obesity Remark

Health: Officials say only a third of Americans are overweight, not a majority.

October 17, 1996|MARTHA WILLMAN and DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Don't add another half-hour to your Stairmaster time just yet.

Health-conscious Southern Californians buzzed about Wednesday, trying to calculate their "body mass index," after a federal researcher was quoted Tuesday as reporting that overweight Americans are now in the majority. However, the researcher's colleagues at the National Center for Health Statistics sheepishly backed away from the data that jarred so many pudgy Americans out of their recliners.

Remarks by the center's Katherine Flegal at a conference on obesity were either misinterpreted or misleading, said Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman for the center. Lancashire said the center instead stands by its 1994 report that found one in three American adults were overweight--not more than half.

The confusion stemmed from Flegal's speech Tuesday before the North American Assn. for the Study of Obesity. Flegal told the group that according to center statistics, more than half of American adults had a body mass index higher than 25.

That's true, but 25 turns out to be the World Health Organization's international standard for measuring obesity, said Lancashire.

The U.S. government standard "is 27.8 for men and 27.3 for women," said a somewhat weary-sounding Lancashire, whose office has been swamped with calls since the reports broke about Flegal's speech.

That's a big difference. A 6-foot man would be considered over the limit at more than 185 pounds if the healthy body mass index maximum is 25. With a body mass index of 27.8, the threshold rises to about 206 pounds.

According to charts the center uses in addition to body mass index, a man that height would be at the upper end of the "healthy weight" range at 185 and in the "moderate overweight" range at 206.

Center officials have been unable to reach Flegal because by the time they found out about her speech, she was on vacation in parts unknown, Lancashire said.

Lancashire said the institute has not been able to obtain a copy of her remarks, but he speculated that she mentioned the WHO's 25 body mass index standard.

"She was going on the international figure--maybe because it was an international conference," he said. He said Flegal may not have known reporters were present for her talk. "But they sure were," he said. "We started to get calls right away."

In any case, the news left plenty of folks calculating.

In Woodland Hills on Wednesday, many people expressed surprise to learn that their body mass index is well within guidelines for acceptable weight.

Heavy smells of shish kebob, stir-fry and pasta slathered in sauce hung in the air at the Santa Monica Place food court in Santa Monica during lunch. For some, the culinary sights were evidence of Americans' never-ending problems with weight.

"Take a look around here, at all the temptations in one place," said Frank Fordyce, 56, seated at a table. "There's too much junk food. We make overeating and eating wrong so attractive."

"He's right," nodded 46-year-old Catherine Kelly, during her lunch break from her sales job. "I was planning to go home and eat, but you come down here and you see the Chinese food, the deli--it's like a kid in the candy store. What should I have today?"

Correspondent Matea Gold contributed to this story.

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