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KNOXVILLE — Sedentary lifestyles and misleading public health messages are increasing America’s obesity problems, a University of Tennessee nutrition researcher said Friday.

Dr. Michael Zemel, who heads the nutrition department in UT-Knoxville’s College of Human Ecology, attributes part of a recent rise in U.S. obesity to public health campaigns that focus on fat consumption without emphasizing caloric intake.

“We have heard the public health messages about fat, but we may have been sending out the wrong messages,” Zemel said. “It’s not all about fat. It’s all about your total diet and physical activity pattern.”

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has reported that obesity — defined as being more than 30 percent above ideal body weight — rose from one in eight in 1991 to one in five in 1998.

While Zemel acknowledges a link between genetics and obesity, he said sedentary lifestyles also play a vital role.

“We have some subtle and sometimes not so subtle environmental changes acting on genetically susceptible individuals,” Zemel said. “We are a sedentary society. We don’t even have to get out of our cars to have a meal.

“We’ve allowed our kids to adopt our sedentary lifestyle, and we’re setting up the next generation to further this exploding obesity epidemic and to fall victim to it.”

Zemel said obesity-related problems kill about 300,000 Americans a year.