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CDC Report Offers Glimmer of Progress on Altering U.S. Obesity Trend

February 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
According to a new report from the CDC, Americans' consumption of fast food has declined and kids are eating fewer calories, suggesting that efforts to fight fat may be working. Ray Suarez discusses the state of the obesity epidemic with Michael Moss, author of "Salt, Sugar, Fat," and former CDC official Dr. William Dietz.

RAY SUAREZ: There may be hope yet for bringing the national epidemic of obesity under control. At least the latest numbers on calories and fast food released today indicated possible progress.

For years, health officials have warned about Americans’ growing girth. Now research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the fight against fat may be having an effect. Among the findings, American children consumed fewer calories in 2010 than a decade before, seven percent less for boys, four percent less for girls. And for adults, fast food accounted for just over 11 percent of the calories consumed in 2010, down from nearly 13 percent in 2006.

The researchers acknowledge the changes are small and can’t be fully explained. But public campaigns against obesity have intensified in recent years. Last September, for instance, New York City’s Board of Health limited sugared drinks and sodas to 16 ounces or less. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the prohibition that takes effect Mar. 12th.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I- New York City: This is the single biggest step any city I think has ever taken to curb obesity, but certainly not the last step that lots of cities are going to take. And we believe that it will help save lives.

RAY SUAREZ: And, today, continuing her long-running Let’s Move campaign, first lady Michelle Obama , along with Big Bird of “Sesame Street,” issued new public service announcements encouraging kids to get active and eat healthy.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: No matter what your age, it’s important to get your body moving every single day to help keep you healthy.

BIG BIRD, “Sesame Street”: Look, Mrs. Obama, I’m getting moving right now by jogging.

RAY SUAREZ: If a healthy trend is developing, it still has a long way to go. As of 2012, the CDC estimated more than one-third of American adults and one out of three of children were obese.

We examine today’s numbers and the larger challenges obesity still presents with two people who have studied the epidemic closely. Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times. His new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” looks at how companies have contributed to weight gain. And Dr. William Dietz is the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC.

Michael Moss, let me start with you.

I know there are caveats and things to be further explained, but just the gross statistics, adults consuming fewer calories from fast food, children consuming fewer calories overall, that’s good news, isn’t it?

MICHAEL MOSS, The New York Times, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”: Well, that’s fabulous news for nutritionists, who are concerned about these foods.

I mean, these are among the foods that we all hate to love because they’re calorically dense. They pack in huge amounts of sugar, fat, and salt into small packages, and no doubt have contributed greatly to the obesity epidemic, as well as other health concerns, diabetes, et cetera, in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Dietz, is there a not-so-fast moment waiting here? Is it — are you worried about getting too happy about this report?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ, Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Official: I’m not sure this is good news. When we look at the obesity statistics, the prevalence, the frequency has stayed flat in girls and is increasing in boys.

But with a decrease of 150 calories in boys and 80 calories in girls, which this study demonstrated, we would expect weight loss. The only way that we can explain the decline in calories and the increase in obesity in boys, flat in girls, is that physical activity has declined. And if that’s the case, that’s a real concern, because physical activity plays a major role in the prevention of chronic diseases, including obesity.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what’s the assignment now? Is it stringing together more years of that declining consumption along with, as you suggest, increased physical activity?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, for sure we need to decrease consumption, particularly of specific products which contribute excessive calories to the diets of children and adolescents.

RAY SUAREZ: Carb consumption as well.

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, sugar drinks are the main source of sugar, but pizzas, another big source of calories which hasn’t gotten as much attention.

But, by the same token, we need to increase physical activity, because physical activity reduces the risk factors associated with obesity, like elevated cholesterol, like elevated insulin and glucose levels, like elevated blood pressure.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Moss, along with knowing the raw statistics, is it important to know why? Could it be from economic factors, that a lot of people just had less money to spend on all kinds of things, including food? Or would you want to know that it’s the fact that the messages from the big voices in the culture finally are taking hold?

MICHAEL MOSS: You know, Americans are becoming much more concerned about the food that we put in our mouths, but, yes, there’s a couple cautionary notes beyond those mentioned by Dr. Dietz.

One, the data comes from the recession period, when people were trying to save money by cutting back on eating out of the home. The other cautionary note is the question, you know, what were they replacing these fast foods with? And in my reporting for the book, I found that over the years recently, fast food-type products have been moving into the grocery store, where you see more entirely prepared meals ready to eat in the school lunchroom or at home that have almost the caloric loads and the salt-sugar-fat loads as fast food restaurants.

So it becomes a question of, OK, you’re cutting back on fast food, but what are you replacing with those, and are those in fact healthier for people?

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree that there’s a lot more that we have to know in order to understand what’s going on here?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Oh, absolutely we do.

But I think that the concern that I have that about the potential explanation for these findings — that is, a decrease in physical activity — should increase the urgency of restoring physical education programs to schools, of restoring recess to schools, of making our communities more physical activity-friendly.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you worry about the trend that Michael Moss brought up of, well, maybe we’re going to fast food restaurants less often, but the food that we’re buying to eat at home is more like fast food food?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Absolutely.

I think that the food companies, as Michael has pointed out, have really painted themselves into a corner, because the same characteristics or the same nutrients which make food so tasty — that is salt, sodium, and fat — are the same characteristics that make them unhealthy. So his point about what people are replacing those foods with is well-taken.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Moss, one of the less ballyhooed statistics was that people who were already obese consumed more fast food in this same period. And these are the people who were already in danger, weren’t they?

MICHAEL MOSS: It’s so distressing to hear that, too, because within the food industry, the heaviest consumers, the heaviest consumers of the worst foods were typically referred to by companies as heavy users.

And companies would put most of their marketing and efforts on encouraging those consumers to maintain their high levels of consumption. And you see that across the board, whether it’s grocery manufacturers or fast food concerns focusing on those people who are eating lots, because it makes more economic sense for companies to focus their marketing on those individuals.

And, as you point out, those are the least people — those are the people who should be least eating those foods, and the people we should be most concerned about. So in the grocery store, when you see low-fat products, low-sugar products, alternatives to the mainline items that companies sell, often, the people eating those are the people we least need to have eating those.

RAY SUAREZ: So, is the food industry on board or not in getting Americans to eat healthier and weigh less?

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: Well, I think that there are efforts under way.

Certainly, some companies are doing more than others. But they have gotten the message, both, I think, from the public health advocates and increasingly from the public that things need to change. The question is how rapidly are they changing and will that — how big a difference will those changes make?

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Moss, I’m sorry I cut you off.

MICHAEL MOSS: No, just one of the problems for the companies is that they’re beholden not only to consumers, but to Wall Street.

And the fierce competition among companies themselves and their obligation to shareholders to keep profits up has really also boxed in these companies, as they move forward, and decide how much can they really afford to pull back on these loads of salt, sugar, fat, in order to create a healthier product without jeopardizing their sales?

RAY SUAREZ: So, with all your cautions in mind, we will keep an eye on this.

Michael Moss, Dr. Dietz, thank you both.

DR. WILLIAM DIETZ: You’re very welcome.