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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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The nation's obesity epidemic appears to have leveled off. After increasing for decades, the proportion of Americans who are obese may have finally peaked, according to new federal statistics. That could mark a significant turning point for one of the nation's biggest health problems. But NPR's Rob Stein reports, no one is celebrating quite yet.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: During the 1980s and 1990s, obesity skyrocketed in this country, doubling among adults and tripling among children. That trend was alarming because obese people are more likely to develop diabetes, have heart attacks, get cancer - just to name a few of the serious health problems. And for a long time, it didn't look like there was any end in sight until now.

DR. CYNTHIA OGDEN: These data basically show that we haven't seen any change in probably since about 2003-4 in obesity in any group.

STEIN: That's Cynthia Ogden of the National Center for Health Statistics. She and others analyzed 12 years of federal data. She won't speculate about why obesity might be stalling. But other experts say at least part of it is all the attention the problem has been getting. Here's Penny Gordon-Larsen of the University of North Carolina.

DR. PENNY GORDON-LARSEN: We've seen some very effective changes that are occurring in schools and at the societal level in terms of food labeling, economic incentives, behavioral strategies.

STEIN: It's also possible that we've reached a kind of new normal. David Ludwig at Harvard says we simply may have hit the biological saturation point.

DR. DAVID LUDWIG: Obesity can't keep going up year after year indefinitely. Ultimately, we'll reach a state where those individuals who are susceptible to becoming obese for genetic reasons have already developed obesity.

STEIN: But no one's declaring victory by any means. If you just look around, you can see that more than one-third of adults and almost one out of every six children are obese. That translates into 78 million obese adults and more than 12 million obese children. And that's not even counting people who are not technically obese but are still overweight.

LUDWIG: We may have peaked, but we're peaked at levels that have never before occurred for humans.

STEIN: And minorities are still being hit the hardest. Ludwig is among those who want the government to take some big steps: Rein in junk food advertising to kids, mandate both healthier lunches and more exercise in schools, and even cut off some farm subsidies.

LUDWIG: We, so far, lack anything resembling a comprehensive national strategy. The airwaves are full of marketing of junk food and fast-food to children. And we continue to have farm subsidies legislation that pump in billions of dollars into the highest-calorie, poorest-quality commodities.

STEIN: But Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a libertarian group that gets money from food, restaurant and other industries, objects to anything he says smacks of nanny state.

JUSTIN WILSON: The notion that the government can save us from ourselves I reject from both a good government perspective but also from the perspective of actually trying to stem the tide of obesity.

STEIN: Others question the whole idea of an obesity epidemic. Take Glenn Gaesser of Arizona State University. He argues we should be focusing much more on getting people to eat better and exercise more rather than just focusing on their weight.

DR. GLENN GAESSER: Most people who lose weight will ultimately regain it. If they do this over and over and over again, you develop a nation of weight cyclers, a yo-yo dieting society. And there are risks associated with yo-yo dieting that are every bit as hazardous as the risks associated with just being fat.

STEIN: So despite the good news about the trends in obesity, it's clear the debate over what to do about the problem is far from over. Rob Stein, NPR News.

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