updated 2/6/2004 12:29:12 PM ET 2004-02-06T17:29:12

Americans, especially women, are getting fatter because they eat much more of everything than they did 30 years ago, and carbs are the biggest culprit, the government said Thursday.

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In the year 2000, women ate the equivalent of one more large chocolate chip cookie every day — 335 more calories — compared to what they ate in 1971.

Men ate 168 more calories — slightly more than a 12-ounce Pepsi — each day, according to the study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The majority of the increase in calories is from an increase in carbohydrate intake,” said Jacqueline Wright, a CDC epidemiologist and study author.

And she doesn’t mean fruits and vegetables. It’s the cookies, bagels, chips, pasta and soda that are to blame.

The extra calories are leading to extra pounds and chronic health problems. Obesity rates jumped from 14.5 percent of U.S. adults in 1971 to 30.9 percent in 2000, said Wright.

The average intake for men grew from 2,450 calories in 1971 to 2,618 calories in 2000. For women, caloric intake grew from 1,542 calories to 1,877 calories during the same time period.

The government recommends about 1,600 daily calories for women and 2,200 for men, more for active people.

CDC officials did not say whether the study would affect the USDA’s Food Pyramid, which recommends eating a diet heavy in breads and grains, which are high in carbohydrates. Wright said a federal panel examining general dietary guidelines will review the results of the study.

The idea that carbohydrates lead to a bigger waistline was long espoused by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose low-carb diet has been followed by millions of people.

More than just watching carbs
On the Atkins diet, up to two-thirds of calories may come from fat — more than double the usual recommendation — and violating long-held government guidelines and most nutritionists’ advice.

CDC officials said people should watch their overall eating and exercise habits, not just carbs. Previous federal studies have blamed eating out and larger food portions.

“Certainly if our calorie intake is increasing and our physical activities really aren’t changing too much, then we’re going to be seeing weight gain,” Wright said.

The CDC remains concerned that Americans still eat too much saturated fat, a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.

The agency did offer a bit of hope in a separate study that indicates more Americans are making an effort to exercise. Only 25 percent of U.S. adults surveyed in 35 states and the District of Columbia said they did not exercise during their free time in 2002, down from 30 percent 15 years ago.

The federal agency’s goal is to get that inactivity level down to 20 percent or lower, said Sandra Ham, a CDC health statistician.

“Physical activity levels have been improving,” Ham said. “But there’s still much more work to be done.”

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