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Government takes aim at obesity



Worried that Americans are doing the wrong thing to lose weight, the government has decided to test two of the nation’s most popular diets — low-carbohydrate and low-fat — to see which is the more effective and safer way to drop the pounds

 “PEOPLE WANT to do something about being overweight, and from what I’ve seen, they’re willing to try just about anything,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Tuesday. “Why these weight-loss diets remain so popular remains a source of extreme curiosity.”
       Millions of Americans have tried one of the diets or several variations of them, including the wildly popular, high-protein, low-carbohydrate regimen developed by cardiologist Robert Atkins that lets people eat omelets, bacon and bun-less burgers.
       A rival diet promoted by Dr. Dean Ornish, an internist and outspoken critic of Atkins, is ultra low-fat and virtually vegetarian.
       “Right now we have millions of dollars being spent on these diets and everyone is throwing rocks at each other over what is the best diet,” said Cyndi Thompson, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition expert at the University of Arizona. “If obesity is the No. 1 (health) issue, then we need to put our money there and figure out what works.”

       Researchers with the Agriculture Department plan to put two groups of people on prototype diets that are similar to those Atkins and Ornish are pushing and measure how much weight they lose and what effects the plans have on their health. Some medical experts say the Atkins diet could damage the kidneys or bones, a claim he disputes.

A panel of scientists will develop a protocol for the USDA studies later this year. The studies will be directed by USDA’s nutrition research center at the University of California-Davis.
       “If they do the diet correctly, it will change the basic eating patterns of Americans,” Atkins said. “It will be the greatest step forward that has ever taken place.”
       Glickman announced the research plans at a national summit of health and nutrition professionals, the first such conference the government has held in 31 years. The top issue at the 1969 summit was hunger, and the conference led to a huge expansion in federal feeding programs, including the Women, Infants and Children program that subsidizes meals for pregnant women and new mothers and their babies.

       This year, the top issue is obesity. About 55 percent of Americans are believed to be overweight, more than double the percentage in 1969. Meanwhile, about one-quarter of American adults are obese, according to recent surveys.

“We may have dramatically reduced hunger in America, but now we have a serious weight problem,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
       Obesity is measured by a person’s weight in relation to his or her height. At 6 feet, a person is considered overweight at 185 pounds and obese at 220. Someone who is 5-foot-6 would be overweight at 155 pounds and obese at about 185.
       According to the government’s latest dietary guidelines, which are revised every five years to reflect the latest developments in science, the best way to control weight is by exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet that includes a lot of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Shalala has lost 15 pounds since 1996, proof that one can lose weight without severely restricting calories or food choices, she said.
       “When it comes to crash diets and fad diets, the guidelines are clear: Stop doing them. They won’t last. Instead, take the weight off slowly and steadily through a powerful combination of sensible eating and physical activity,” she said.
       To deal with obesity in children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new pediatric growth charts Tuesday that doctors and parents can use to track kids’ weight and height. The charts have been updated to include body-mass measurements that can help identify weight problems in children as young as 2 years old.

The old CDC charts included a measurement of children’s weight according to their height, but the new BMI chart is a more accurate tool for measuring whether youngsters are overweight, especially children at the high and low end of the spectrum, CDC officials said.


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