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Obesity's Cause Has Experts at Odds

June 11, 2003|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — Super-sized Americans are increasingly as common as super-sized meals, but health experts still disagree about the cause, the cure and even whether greater girth is a matter for public concern at all.

"This is what I'm terming the terror within," U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona told a conference on obesity Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, rattling off statistics that have helped push obesity to the top of his agenda.

Obesity is the fastest-growing cause of disease and death in the country, Carmona said. Two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese -- a 50% increase over the last decade -- and obesity-linked health costs totaled $117 billion in 2000, he said.

But Glenn Gaesser, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, said "yo-yo" dieting, inactivity or diet drugs could as easily be the main culprits behind diseases associated with obesity, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The uncertainty of the connection between excess weight and disease was shown by several studies linking fat thighs to lower risk of heart disease, Gaesser said, adding that exercise and healthy eating habits had been conclusively shown to improve health even without weight loss.

Obesity among children is also rising, Carmona said, noting that 15% of Americans age 6 to 17 were overweight or obese.

The jury is still out on the cause of obesity, with consumer advocates arguing that aggressive food industry advertising and portion "super-sizing" at fast-food restaurants are to blame. Others highlight the roles of genes and sedentary lifestyles.

Tomas Philipson, an economist at the University of Chicago, told the forum huge gains in agricultural efficiency have made food more available and shifted the economy away from labor intensive jobs of the past.

"People are not willing to give up their office jobs for lower pay and more exercise," he said.

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