Comment on a woman's weight, and you can bet she'll take it personally. And a man will, too. That's because most of us take responsibility for our own eating decisions and physical activity.

But as the nation's so-called “obesity epidemic” grows into a top priority, some folks are no longer just blaming the fat, carbohydrates or protein America consumes. They're blaming the food industry for America's weight problems and are calling for special taxes on some foods — including hamburgers. What's more, they want more government regulation of the food industry, such as fast-food warning labels, improved nutrition information and reduced meal sizes.

Trying to capitalize on all this publicity, one trial lawyer briefly found a place at the table with a class-action lawsuit claiming that fast food super-sized his client. That suit was reportedly dismissed, but the same lawyer is cooking up another lawsuit alleging that children are lured into restaurants with playgrounds and kids' meals and are now overweight as a result.

Such ridiculous lawsuits can make your stomach churn. The food industry spends time and money defending them and fighting the negative publicity.

But the statistics are unsettling, too. According to a December 2001 report by the U.S. surgeon general, approximately 61% of adults and 13% of children are overweight. (See “Redefining Obesity” on page 17.) What's more, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the cost of obesity in the U.S. is more than $117 billion/year.

So what does all this attention on the nation's eating habits mean in terms of keeping beef on America's plate?

Mary Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), says beef is nature's best-tasting multivitamin and fits into all healthy diets.

“It's really not about the foods we are choosing,” she says. “It's about how much food we're choosing, whether we are choosing a wide variety of foods and whether we are getting up from the couch and moving.”

When it comes to weight-loss diets, the calories are really what counts, Young says. And that makes food choices even more important.

“If we need to be consuming fewer calories because of our weight issues as a nation, we need to be choosing nutrient-rich calories,” she says.

That's where beef fits on the plate. A 3-oz. serving of lean beef is a source of more than nine essential nutrients and only provides 10% of the daily value for calories in a 2,000-calorie diet.

These facts about beef's nutritional benefits reinforce why nutrition information needs to be readily available to consumers, Young says. That's why NCBA strongly advocates posting this information on fast-food restaurant walls, retail packages and brochures.

“Not only do we believe consumers have a right to know, but we've got a great story to tell them,” she says. “We really want them to see, for instance, that burger they are eating in a fast-food establishment is really an excellent source of nutrition for them.”

But one thing Young and probably everyone else in the beef industry doesn't want to see on that fast-food burger is a warning label — a label that some activists are proposing and likening to the warnings on cigarette packages.

“Putting any kind of label like that on there is absolutely silly and not fact-based,” Young explains. “No food has been shown to cause any kind of disease. It's our dietary patterns and our lifestyle patterns that are the issue.”

Portion Control

Advocacy groups have also been pressuring the foodservice industry to reduce meal sizes and disclose calorie information on their menus.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the food industry's “value marketing” encourages overeating and contributes to the “skyrocketing” rates of obesity in adults and children.

“Americans are constantly induced to spend a little more money to get a lot more food,” says CSPI's Margo Wootan. “Getting more for your money is ingrained in the American psyche. But bigger is rarely better when it comes to food.”

Addressing portion control from the other side of the counter, NCBA has been educating consumers about appropriate serving sizes for several years, Young says. An appropriate serving size for beef is 3 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.

“We are probably one of the leaders in talking about reasonable portions,” she says, adding that one common misperception is that people are over-consuming beef and other meat products.

“The reality is, when you look at government survey data, most people are actually under-consuming in the meat group or just meeting their recommendations,” she says.

Americans are just not getting enough of the key nutrients — like iron, zinc and the B vitamins found in beef, or the calcium and B vitamins found in dairy products, Young explains.

Another misperception is that people who are overweight are well-nourished.

“Somebody could be overweight but still be lacking in these key nutrients,” Young says.

NCBA does not endorse any fad diets but supports checkoff-funded research about including beef in weight management programs, she adds.

Veggie Trends

Some in the media have suggested that in light of all this health consciousness, vegetarianism is on the rise. An article in TIME magazine's July 15 issue claims more Americans are considering themselves vegetarians, especially younger Americans. It says nearly 25% of adolescents think vegetarianism sounds sensible, ethical and “cool.”

But within the nutrition community, Young says, one growing concern is that these adolescents — especially young girls — are actually masking an eating disorder by calling themselves vegetarians. She says we need to question young people who are vegetarians and ensure they are getting adequate nutrition.

The good news is a TIME/CNN poll published in that same July 15 issue says 96% of Americans don't consider themselves vegetarians. And a Sept. 16 article by Fox News reports that many former vegetarians — including actress Drew Barrymore — are re-introducing meat into their diets.

Legislators Address ‘Obesity Epidemic’

Congress recently weighed in on the obesity debate, proposing legislation to establish several million dollars in federal funding for research and information campaigns and other measures to encourage better nutrition and exercise. The $215 million Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act establishes grants to provide health services for improved nutrition, increased physical activity, obesity prevention and for other purposes.

The Senate version of the bill (S.2821) was introduced July 30 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for consideration.

The House version (HR 5412) was introduced Sept. 19. On Oct. 8, the bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Health.

Mary Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says the organization agrees with the philosophies in this legislation: “We certainly support being more physically active and having grants around the country that help schools and different communities develop ways of helping kids be healthier.”

To read the text of these bills or for a status updates, visit the Library of Congress online at http://thomas.loc.gov.

Redefining Obesity

You've heard the alarmism.

“Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and it is increasing,” Claude Lenfant, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in July.

And you've heard the government statistics — approximately 61% of adults and 13% of children in the U.S. are overweight.

But what you might not have heard is this: When the government changed its official definitions of overweight and obese in 1998, the percentage of the population considered officially “overweight” or “obese” rose from 35% to 55% nationally. With that change, 30 million Americans went from “fit” to “overweight” without gaining an ounce, thanks to new guidelines released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to those guidelines, actor and former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is 6 ft. 2 in. and weighs 257 lbs., is considered obese in terms of his body mass index (BMI), which is 33.

BMI is determined by a height-weight calculation in which a person's weight in kilograms is divided by his height in meters squared.

Until 1998, the government didn't precisely quantify obesity, identifying overweight as a BMI of 27.3 for women and 27.8 for men. Under the NIH guidelines, the government now identifies overweight for men and women as a BMI of 25 to 29.9, and it identifies obesity as a BMI of 30 or more.

In theory, though, the NIH guidelines say someone assessing Schwarzenegger's overweight should also consider whether his waist circumference is more than 40 in. (that'd be 35 in. for a woman) and if he has risk factors for disease and conditions associated with obesity. As a disclaimer, NIH says that some “very muscular” people may have a high BMI without health risks because muscle weighs more than fat.

To calculate your BMI, visit the NIH's Web site at www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/.