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Obesity Summit To Seek Ways To Trim The Fat

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Concerned about the nation's skyrocketing obesity epidemic, top government health officials have called a private meeting today in Washington to get advice from leading scientists and researchers in the weight-loss field.

Among topics of discussion: a national walking program, a new obesity institute at the National Institutes of Health, childhood obesity and better food labeling.

The researchers and scientists ''can help us design better foods, better diets and more nutritional programs that help us motivate people to change their lifestyles for the better,'' says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. He has already met with representatives from the food, soft drink and insurance industries. He says he wants to emphasize to as many different groups as possible ''that they can be part of the solution.''

Right now, almost 65% of American adults, or more than 120 million people, are either overweight or obese, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and most types of cancer. Americans' extra weight costs the nation as much as $93 billion in annual medical bills, comparable to the annual medical bill for smoking.

One idea that will be discussed is the America on the Move program, an initiative launched two weeks ago by a non-profit group. It is designed to get millions of people to wear inexpensive step counters and walk an additional 2,000 steps (about a mile) a day or cut out 100 calories.

''It's a program that everybody can get behind,'' says James Hill, co-founder of the program and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Another suggestion: a National Institute of Obesity, which would be part of the NIH, says Morgan Downey of the American Obesity Association, an advocacy group working to promote public policies on obesity.

The institute would oversee research on weight loss, and it would ''offer a powerful voice of reason about weight and its health effects amid all the noise and confusion about what people should and shouldn't be doing,'' he says.

However, his idea comes on the heels of a report out Tuesday that suggests some institutes at NIH should merge.

George Blackburn, associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, says something has to be done about supersized portions. ''We've got to learn portion control. That might mean we need better labeling of serving sizes on packages.''

Federal officials expected to attend include U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Mark McClellan, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Julie Gerberding, and National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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