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The Skinny on How Fat We Really Are

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After a barrage of bad news about rising obesity rates, a marketing research firm boldly announced recently that Americans actually lost weight in the last year. Remarkably, the study by the NPD Group also found that our fast-food nation is eating more fruits and vegetables.

According to "Eating Patterns in America," 55 percent of those surveyed were overweight or obese, down from 56 percent the year before. Researchers examined dietary habits of 5,000 people over 14 days and calculated body mass index, an indicator of body fat based on height and weight.

While a fatness rate of 55 percent hardly seems like cause for celebration, the number has never dropped in the 18 years that New York-based NPD has been tracking consumer eating habits for its industry customers, said NPD Vice President Harry Balzer, who authored the research.

Though shocked by the results, Balzer said the data could be the first hint that Americans are changing their habits. It also could be a statistical blip caused by dozens of other factors, including a weak economy that discourages eating out at restaurants, where the portions are colossal.

Several national obesity experts literally laughed at the results.

"It all depends on the population you're examining," said Charles Baum, medical director of weight management at Alexian Brothers Medical Center and a clinical professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The reason people are so skeptical is the obesity rate has been increasing exponentially. Reports like this are interesting, but it sure flies in the face of everything else I've seen."

A study in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine by a Rand Corp. researcher shows that 1 in every 50 adults is extremely obese-100 or more pounds over a healthy weight-a number that has quadrupled since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, a flurry of other distressing reports was presented at this month's annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, including research that showed obesity (30 pounds over a healthy weight) is soaring in the teen to mid-20s group.

Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that about 40 percent of Americans, or 68 million people, will be obese by 2010 if bellies keep expanding at the current rate.

"There are lots of studies that show Americans are, in fact, sliding backward, which explains the rising obesity rates in children and the escalating risks for disease seen in younger and younger age groups," said registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer. "If Americans are eating more vegetables, it's only because they are eating more french fries and iceberg lettuce, the two least nutritious choices for produce."


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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