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Archive for Friday, February 7, 2003

Small changes may prevent weight gain

Obesity researcher says cutting one cookie a day may be enough

February 7, 2003

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— Could eating a mere 100 fewer calories a day improve Americans' health by fighting the weight creep that adds up to, on average, 2 pounds a year?

That's the argument of a well-known obesity researcher. A few pounds each year eventually means big trouble, says Dr. James Hill of the University of Colorado. He says fending off those pounds simply by cutting back on a cookie or taking three fewer bites of a fast-food hamburger each day may be easier than losing weight later.

Hill acknowledges he has not proved that such a simple step works.

But scientists are searching for different approaches to what is becoming a national epidemic. Sixty percent of U.S. adults are overweight, and the government blames 300,000 deaths a year on weight-related diseases.

"The biggest problem we face in America is not terrorism. The biggest health problem we're facing is obesity," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fixing the problem will require changing societal norms starting with children, she said, such as being more active and eating less in a society that encourages more driving than walking and provides unfettered access to calorie-laden foods.

To focus attention on the problem, the journal Science, in today's edition, turned to obesity researchers for opinions on what it would take to lower the scales.

Hill's response was to examine government figures showing about 40 million adults are obese and documenting Americans' steady weight gain in recent years.

"The future is not hopeful unless we act now," he concluded. If current trends continue, he estimated that 39 percent of adults would be obese by 2008, compared with 31 percent in 2000.

Losing weight and keeping it off can be hard. So Hill and colleagues calculated what he calls the energy gap -- how many calories are consumed but not burned off.

Using that same government data, he estimated that, on average, people gain 2 pounds a year, which equals 50 extra calories stored each day. Because the body can store half of calories consumed, he said preventing that 2-pound weight gain might simply require eating 100 fewer calories a day.

For people reluctant to eat less, Colorado's Hill points to a current experiment in which Colorado is encouraging people to take an extra 2,000 steps a day. Hill is studying 500 participants to see if that extra little bit helps their weight; results are not due for another year or two.

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