Being too fat has become almost as big a health problem as smoking in the United States, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher said on Thursday, and urged Americans to lose weight.
Despite constant urging to eat better food and exercise more, Americans are gaining weight by the minute and are heavier and lazier than ever before in history, Satcher said.
He issued a report calling on families, schools and employers to work together to help people eat healthier food and get the exercise they need to lose weight.
"Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," Satcher said in a speech launching the report.
"Most studies show that an obese individual has a 50 to 100 per cent increased risk of ... early death, premature death, compared to people of normal weight."
The report says about 300,000 people die every year in the United States from diseases that are a direct result of being overweight, including heart disease and cancer. Smoking is blamed for 400,000 deaths a year.
"The total direct and indirect costs attributed to overweight and obesity amounted to $117 billion in the year 2000," the Health and Human Services Department said in a statement.
The report said obese and overweight people are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and certain kinds of cancer, including breast and colon cancer. "They are more susceptible to illnesses of every kind," HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said.
This trend is not hard to correct, he added.
"We just had a recent National Institutes of Health study that showed a simple loss of 15 pounds would reduce the incidence of diabetes by 58 per cent,"Thompson said.
He said people could achieve that by walking 30 minutes every day. "That's not that much," he said.
Thompson himself pledged to lose 15 pounds.
"In 1999, an estimated 61 per cent of U.S. adults were overweight, along with 13 per cent of children and adolescents," the HHS statement said.
"Obesity among adults has doubled since 1980, while overweight among adolescents has tripled," it addled. Fewer than a third of Americans exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week - the minimum recommended, and 40 per cent engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all.
"This probably is the most sedentary generation of people in the world," Satcher said.
He called on communities to build more sidewalks and playgrounds. "When there are no safe places for children to play, or for adults to walk, jog, or ride a bike, that's a community responsibility," he said.
Schools and employers need to offer better food, he added. "The typical American diet is too heavily laced with sugar and fats and too few people eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables," Satcher said.
At the very least, he said, schools need to obey a U.S. Agriculture Department regulation that says no low-nutrition food - including snacks from vending machines - should be available to kids at mealtimes.
And schools need to make children exercise."Our school system must bear some of the blame when we consider only the state of Illinois requires physical education in grades kindergarten through 12," he said.
"It's time to get children off of the couch and onto the playground," Thompson added.
The report drew praise from groups like the American Obesity Association and the American Dietetic Association.
But it came under attack from the Sugar Association, which thought the report should have stressed fitness more, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which wants more spent on education and which wants more limits on junkfood sold in schools.