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Are Americans getting thinner?

A new survey hints at a reversal in weight gains, but CDC projections indicate otherwise.
/ Source: WebMD

Finally, some good news about the nation’s collective waistline. After years of weight gain, a new national survey suggests Americans are eating better and actually weigh slightly less than they did a year ago.

Findings from the market research firm NPD Group’s 18th Annual Eating Patterns in America report showed that the number of people who were overweight dropped this year for the first time in six years. The reduction was modest — 55 percent of those surveyed were overweight compared with 56 percent in 2002. But the reversal still surprised NPD vice president and study author Harry Balzer.

“We are losing weight as a country: I’ve never seen that,” Balzer says in a news release. “People are more concerned about fat, cholesterol, sugar and additives in their diets than they have been. That’s new. That was hot in the ’80s but has dropped off since then.”

CDC sees no reverse trend
So does this mark the beginning of the end of the excesses in weight gain seen in the United States? Alas, the CDC says the answer is no. Weight projections presented this week at a major obesity conference paint a bleak picture of the future.

The CDC’s Dr. Larissa Roux, told the group that the projections show 21 million more obese Americans in 2010 than in 2000. That translates to 68 million people overall, or 40 percent of the total population. Just over 30 percent of American adults were considered obese in 2000.

The CDC figures are based on population surveys conducted up until 2000. But while the NPD findings relied on the people being questioned to accurately report their heights and weights to determine what weight gains have occurred, the data used by the CDC included objective measurements of body mass index (BMI — a measure of weight to height). A person with a BMI of between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, while someone with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

“These projections assume that the trends will remain the same, in terms of treatment and preventive strategies for obesity,” Roux tells WebMD. “I think in order to make a dent in obesity, we will need a collective, comprehensive approach that is missing at this point in time.”

Eating better, exercising more?
The NPD survey suggests, if not a sea change, a subtle shift in people’s thinking about diet and exercise.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they check food labels often, compared with 51 percent of those surveyed in 2002. Thirty-five percent of the population says they plan their meals to be nutritious, up from a prior 32 percent in 2001. And 66 percent of those questioned said they exercised strenuously at least once a week, compared with 63 percent a year ago.

Fresh fruit consumption was up 6 percent over the previous year, and vegetable consumption grew by 5 percent. People also ate more salads in restaurants, a trend believed to be due to the increasing number of salad choices offered by fast-food chains.

The NPD report includes data from 40 different studies conducted by the company throughout the year. But much of the information on weight loss and eating trends came from a single survey of 5,000 people selected to be geographically and demographically reflective of the U.S. population as a whole.

Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they carefully planned their meals to be nutritious, compared with 32 percent in 2001. And while those questioned were somewhat thinner, fewer reported the desire to lose weight as their primary goal. Sixty-one percent of those questioned this year said they wanted to lose 20 pounds, compared with 61 percent last year.

More American’s were classified as “naturalist” eaters in the latest survey, meaning that they tend to chose healthier and home cooked foods. Sixteen percent of surveyed households fell into this category in 2000, compared with 21 percent this year.

Balzer says Americans may finally be getting the message about healthy eating, but he acknowledges that there is no way to tell whether this latest snapshot of food habits represents the beginning of a trend.

“The question is, which trends are the beginning of a new direction and which are short-term disruptions?” he says.

WebMD content is provided to MSNBC by the editorial staff of WebMD. The MSNBC editorial staff does not participate in the creation of WebMD content and is not responsible for WebMD content. Remember that editorial content is never a substitute for a visit to a health care professional.