Obesity is the No. 1 health threat in the United States today, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
While much of her time is spent preparing to fight anthrax, smallpox, and biological threats, and diseases like SARS and West Nile virus, the CDC's Dr. Julie Gerberding said Americans are much more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes caused by smoking, eating too much and exercising too little.
"Unfortunately, poor diet and a lack of exercise have almost caught up with tobacco as being the leading cause of death in the United States," Gerberding on Tuesday told a meeting of the National Health Council, which groups companies and non-profit health advocacy organizations.
She cited statistics that show 65 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. In 2000, 38.8 million American adults were classified as obese, meaning their health is seriously at risk.
"In three states, 25 percent of adults are obese — not overweight but obese," Gerberding said. The three states are Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia. "It is a catastrophe in our country." She showed a graph of the leading causes of death in the United States. Heart disease is first, followed by cancer, stroke, lung disease and accidents.
Obesity is a leading cause of the first three and, she said, bioterrorism is nowhere to be seen among the top 10 causes of death. The government is working and will do more to encourage better eating and exercise habits, said Gerberding. "We really have to change our behavior in astonishing ways if we are going to get over this bottleneck to good health," she said.
At the CDC, Gerberding has said one of her first acts as director was to open stairwells. Putting in carpeting, music and allowing employees to hang children's art has made it more appealing to use them, she said "along with turning off some of the elevators."