With Potbellies Back In, Buffet Pots Are Humming

By TIMOTHY EGAN  New York Times May 3, 2005

LAS VEGAS, April 28 - In the heart of the Vegas Strip, surrounded by faux bits of Paris, Venice, New York and enough buffet tables to choke an army, Phil Goss and his wife, Mary, considered the temptations at midday.

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Filling two plates at a Stardust casino buffet in Las Vegas. A study has buoyed the plump majority.

She was on a diet. He was considering one. But looking at the options - fresh-baked pastries sugar-glazed to a high sheen, mountainous slabs of sauce-smothered beef, a United Nations of food - he felt emboldened by a recent report that suggested people who are a little fat live longer than people who are thin.

"It's like this: if you could drive down the road and never see a single red light, you would do it," said Mr. Goss, a lawyer from Miami. "Let's just say that report makes it more likely that I'm not going to stop for a red light." He ordered a box of mega doughnuts to go.

While the government continues to warn that excess weight and related concerns are a major threat to the 65 percent of adult Americans who are either overweight or obese, that is not the message that many people are getting from the latest report from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors, trainers, fast food restaurant owners and average American calorie counters say the study, reported in April in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is being interpreted one way: Supersize me, without guilt.

"It's been well received by patients, but not by doctors," said Dr. Elbert Ray, a physician at Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, a health maintenance organization in Los Angeles. "What people heard was: you can be a little overweight and you're going to live longer. I'm afraid some of my patients are now deluding themselves."

The study suggested that people who are somewhat overweight are at less risk of early death than people who are thin. It also found that carrying around some heft was far less mortal than a previous study had found. That report, 13 months ago, warned that obesity and surplus weight were associated with 400,000 early deaths a year and would soon outpace smoking as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The revised study said the net number was more like 26,000 deaths.

Although the news may not put a significant dent in the $46-billion-a-year diet industry, it did prompt a charge of the lite brigade against caloric restraint.

"The federal government had told us that your love handles were going to kill you," said Dan Mindus, a senior analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group financed by the food industry that took out full-page advertisements saying the "so-called obesity epidemic" was a hoax. "Now people understand that being overweight is probably a little healthier than being thin," he said in an interview.

On the group's Web site, Mr. Mindus celebrated a new day for waistline-busters. "For those of us who enjoy a full menu of choices and don't like to be hectored about what to eat, things are looking up," he wrote.

Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor who has crusaded against the diet industry, predicted that the report would unleash a backlash.

"Much of the cultural hysteria around the issue of weight gain has always been cosmetic, wrapped up in phony medical rhetoric," said Mr. Campos, author of "The Diet Myth: Why America's Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health." His book attacks the "skinny elite" as moral scourges backed by companies that make money from diets.

The real health problem is that most Americans are too sedentary, he said, and he predicted that the latest report would shift the emphasis away from numbers on a bathroom scale to heart and blood pressure readings.

Food industry officials expressed hope that the study could knock the momentum out of various legislative proposals to curb junk food in the schools. Critics say the industry pressured government health officials to pull back on warnings from the surgeon general and others that Americans were eating themselves to death.

"The industry wants to kill all the cheeseburger bills," said Morgan Spurlock, who made the documentary "Supersize Me," about how he gained 25 pounds and put his health at risk by eating nothing but McDonald's food for a month. "Look at where all the pressure has been coming from: lobbyists for food that makes you fat."

All of which left the Centers for Disease Control somewhat defensive as it tried to explain the changing numbers.

"We're not saying you can't have an ice cream cone or eat a cheeseburger," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the centers, which is charged with protecting the nation's health. "But some people are taking these numbers and saying that obesity is not a public health problem - and that's simply not the case."

Mr. Skinner said the government's leading medical authorities still believed that excess weight, and related problems of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and other conditions, were a huge threat to the public.

"There is an epidemic," he said, "if you look at the sheer number of people who are overweight and obese in this country." But he cautioned that "we want people to understand that all of the science around why people are dying of obesity is evolving."

And though nobody on either side of the food wars has said the new report is a green light for gluttony, you would not know it at the buffet tables in Las Vegas, where the subtleties of the study were lost in the crossroads of excess.

"We love that kind of news - I give it five stars," said Ed Bradish, of Fulton, N.Y., who with his wife, Yvonne, was mulling over the ribs at Tony Roma's in the Stardust Resort and Casino here. Like others interviewed on the food stops along the Strip, Mr. Bradish said the report confirmed his bias and made it less likely that he would show restraint at the table.

"The old people used to always tell us that it was better to have a little fat than to be thin," said Mr. Bradish, a retired school cafeteria worker. "Now we know it's true."

At the Frontier Hotel and Casino's buffet, Eileen Caliendo, 75, pushed away from dinner with a satisfied look.

"I enjoy life, I eat what I want to eat, and I couldn't be happier to hear that the government is now saying it's O.K. to be a little heavy," she said. "Plus, as you get older, the thinner you are the more likely you are to show wrinkles."

People who work with dieters said that some of their clients felt relieved from the burden of guilt that often accompanies extra heft.

"People have just been bombarded by these messages that, if I'm not at my perfect body weight, I'm not healthy," said Rick Emerson, the fitness director at Ironworks, a gym east of Seattle. "Unfortunately, we do have a big problem. But it has to do with lack of exercise."

Dr. Ray, in Los Angeles, said he feared that the latest surveys on weight and death would be received like earlier studies showing a health benefit from drinking red wine.

"My concern," he said, "is that when I advise people to drink a little red wine because it may help lower their cholesterol, they don't hear the moderation part of that - all they hear is drink wine."

Original article posted at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/03/national/03gluttony.html?hp