CDC counters growing criticism of obesity studies

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Obesity, Cancer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has responded to
mounting criticism that a recent report may have minimized the
dangers of obesity, writes Anthony Fletcher.

"What we don't want is for this debate to continue to confuse people,"​ said Dr Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country. They have many adverse consequences."

Gerberding was speaking on Thursday in response to a CDC study published in April, which concluded that obesity causes only about 25,814 deaths a year in the United States, far fewer than the 365,000 deaths estimated in another CDC report published just months earlier. There were concerns that such a divergence of figures would likely confuse consumers and send out the wrong message.

The most recent report also concluded that people who were overweight but not obese were less likely to die than those who were skinny or at "ideal" weight. Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society have openly disagreed with both conclusions.

However some pressure groups have targeted the first report, arguing that it was irresponsible of the CDC to make any estimation of the number of deaths caused by obesity in the first place. According to the Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization with links to the food industry, Thursday's press conference merely muddied the waters.

"Gerberding offered the classic apology of a politician, saying: 'I'm very sorry for the confusion that these scientific discussions have had,'"​ said the organization.

"What she should have apologized for is knowingly publishing a flawed study in the first place. Internal documents from the CDC indicate that the authors - which included Gerberding - of the study blaming overweight and obesity for 400,000 deaths per year were told they were using the wrong methodology, yet did nothing to resolve the problem before publication."

Many in the food industry are concerned that their sector could be swamped by health-related lawsuits if certain types of food and obesity are conclusively linked. The precedent for suing food manufacturers over health claims was set in 2002, when two New York teenage girls sued McDonald's, blaming the fast food chain for the girls' obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

However the CDC, while acknowledging the difficulty of estimating the number of obesity-relate deaths, seems intent on returning to the big picture; that obesity in the US is a worrying and dangerous trend. Katherine Flegal, the author of the most recent CDC report, was not at the Thursday news conference, and it was left to Gerberding, an author on the previous study, to underline to reporters the dangers of obesity.

"First of all, we know that over the last 20 years, the rates of obesity and overweight in this country have soared astronomically,"​ she said. "There are some states where more than 25 percent of the population is obese. Overall, in our country, 65 percent of adults are overweight, and about 30 percent of adults overall meet the criteria for obesity.

"We know that obesity and overweight are important health threats. People who are obese experience an increased rate of hypertension, diabetes, renal failure. They're at increased risk for cancers, including colon cancer, post-menopausal breast cancer, gall bladder cancer, and uterine cancer. "

The problem, said Gerberding, is that the CDC is still unable to accurately estimate the impact of obesity on death. In addition, scientists do not know as yet what the long-term consequences of the obesity epidemic among children will ultimately be on the health profile of the US.

"As these children age and these health consequences accumulate, we may be seeing a very different profile of health status in our country, and that's a very, very worrisome outlook if we don't take steps now to fix it"​ she said.

The economic estimates of the impact of obesity are astronomical. Approximately $52 billion in healthcare was attributed to obesity in 1995, according to Gerberding, and by 2003, this figure had increased to $75 billion.

Related topics: R&D

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