Relax. Grim estimates of how many millions of Americans have various diseases often are high and wild. And they’re all over the place, ” writes Frank Greve in the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

Greve continues:

Who’s pushing the high numbers? Skeptical bio-statisticians blame drug companies and reporters for much of the hype. They also blame research institutes and disease foundations seeking more public spending on particular diseases … These days, prevalence statistics often are part of a larger effort to convince people that what they consider a human condition is really a disease.

In terms of obesity, Greve is right on. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that obesity killed 400,000 Americans annually, the media and pharmaceutical industry pounced. USA Today’s lead story typified the next day’s coverage: “Obesity on Track as No. 1 Killer.” Meanwhile, Richard Atkinson, who runs the pharmaceutical industry-supported American Obesity Association, cited the 400,000-deaths estimate on a website pitching his supposed “obesity virus” test kit. The kit, by the way, costs $100.

But now they’re all on a diet of crow — or at least they should be after panicking the nation for more than a year. A study released last week reported that the actual number of overweight- and obesity-related deaths was closer to 26,000 — one-fifteenth the original estimate. Joining a chorus of media critics, the editors of The Des Moines Register opined:

It’s true that Americans are fattening up. But federal researchers apparently have plumped up how many people die from it … “Counting deaths is not an exact science,” a federal researcher told reporters. Apparently it’s not even an approximate one.

Meanwhile, The Boston Globe’s Ellen Goodman writes:

If there were a prize for yo-yo sciencing it would be in research on the “epidemic of obesity”… Somewhere another batch of scientists is working on the next episode of ‘As the Research Turns.’