Obesity epidemic slows
The nation's obesity epidemic appears finally to be slowing.
The latest federal data shows that the rate at which adults and children are becoming obese has leveled off, according to a pair of papers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The rate at which Americans have been becoming obese rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, causing widespread alarm that the nation's girth would lead to an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other health problems. But there have been clues that the seemingly inexorable rise might be slowing.
In the new research, Cynthia Ogden of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and her colleagues analyzed data collected through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing survey of thousands of Americans that includes directly measuring height and weight.
The new analysis, which included data from 5,555 adult men and women included in the latest survey conducted in 2007 and 2008, confirmed that more than one-third of adults are obese overall. But the prevalence of obesity did not increase significantly for women since the last survey--confirming a plateau that showed up in the 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 surveys. And there was no statistically significant change in the obesity rate for women over the 10-year period between 1999 and 2008. Among men, there was a significant increase overall during this period, but no clear sign of an increase since the 2003-2004 survey.
A separate analysis of data collected from 3,281 children ages 2 to 19 and 719 infants and toddlers from birth to age 2 similarly found that the prevalence of those whose body weight was above normal has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years. The one exception was for boys ages 6 to 19 who were the heaviest. Their rate continues to rise.
Skeptics seized on the data as evidence that the concerns about obesity have been exaggerated. For example, Paul Ernsberger of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine says the new data is much more reliable than other estimates based on telephone interviews that officials have repeatedly used to make dire predictions about obesity rates rising with no end in sight.
But the researchers who conducted the new studies and other experts are warning that it's far from time to declare victory. William Dietz of the CDC, for example, notes that the proportion of Americans who are obese remains high -- at more than a third -- and there continue to be worrisome trends. For example, while the overall proportion of children who are obese appears to have stopped increasing, the proportion of the heaviest boys who are becoming very obese continues to increase.
Dietz and others, however, said that slowing the trend was at least a start, and may be due to a combination of factors, including people finally starting to get the message that they need to watch what they eat.
But Barry Popkin, an obesity expert at the University of North Carolina, wonders if the plateau in the proportion of people who are becoming obese will continue. He notes that it coincided with jump in food prices and the recession, which could have just temporarily affected eating habits.
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