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An Epidemic of Obesity Myths
Myth: Obesity Kills 400,000 Americans Annually

On March 9, 2004, the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stood in front of a packed press conference to announce the conclusions of a CDC study that attributed 400,000 deaths each year to poor diet and physical inactivity. USA Today typified the press coverage the next day with its lead story, "Obesity on Track as No. 1 Killer."

A little over one year later, a scientifically superior study conducted by researchers from the CDC and the NIH found that obesity and overweight were responsible for fewer than 26,000 deaths per year—one-fifteenth the CDC’s original 400,000-deaths estimate. Despite sustained publicity surrounding the larger number, a CDC spokesman told The New York Times that the agency would not take a position on the new paper because "We’re too early in the science." A month later the agency reluctantly accepted the findings of the report.

The CDC has made no comment on the findings of an internal audit of the 400,000-deaths study’s errors. A summary of the internal review committee’s findings noted:

"While there was at least one error in the calculations and both the presentation of the paper and limitations of the approach could have been expressed more clearly, the fundamental scientific problem centers around the limitations in both the data and the methodology in this area."

Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000
"Reframing the Debate: Avoid a list of individual attributes and misleading terms like obesity, and do not rush to judgment about the growing prevalence of obesity."
—From an Institute of Medicine report, "Estimating the Contribution of Lifestyle- Related Factors to Preventable Death", 2005