Good news: A recent study suggests Americans, especially women, aren't packing on any more pounds than they have in recent years.

But don't ditch your diet just yet.

The bad news is that while Americans aren't more obese than they have been lately, an alarming number — more than 72 million people — are still battling the bulge.

"A third of our adult population is obese; that's a lot," said Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found obesity rates in women have leveled off since 1999 and that obesity rates among men may be following a similar trend, though the prevalence of obesity among males slightly increased until 2003 but then leveled off in the subsequent years.

After a quarter century of more and more people counted as obese, do the study's findings suggest there may be a new status quo or that it's OK to not lose weight, as long as you don't gain any pounds?

Dr. Jairy Hunter, medical director of Coastal Inpatient Physicians, affiliated with Trident Health Systems, said this week that the answer is, basically, "No."

"The same number of people are obese," Hunter said. "It's a little bit misleading, because it's like saying ... 'Well, at least you haven't gained any weight.' "

But Hunter said the study is somewhat encouraging, because it shows the rate of change for obesity prevalence has slowed and that Americans may be managing their weight more effectively.

Hunter added that more could be done to better inform people about the epidemic and address health problems caused by obesity.

He regularly sees patients who suffer from the long-term effects of obesity, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, certain types of cancer, joint problems and type 2 diabetes.

"Too many of us are still too heavy," Hunter said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

The adult obesity rate had generally been climbing since 1980. The entire adult population has grown heavier, and the heaviest have become much heavier in the last 25 years. People with a

body-mass index — a standard measure of height and weight — of 30 or greater are considered obese.

Hunter said a 5-foot-tall woman would be considered obese if she weighed about 155 pounds. A 6-foot-tall man would be obese if he weighed about 221 pounds.

In South Carolina, more than one of every four adults is considered obese, making the state the fifth-heaviest in the nation, according to the Trust for America's Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention. The Palmetto State tied with Tennessee for the fifth spot.

Dr. Patrick O'Neil, director of the Medical University of South Carolina's Weight Management Center, said that "the South basically is leading the way" in the nation for prevalence of obesity.

Blame it on fatty foods, good ol' country living and sweet tea, a Southern favorite that is often loaded with sugar calories, he said.

"Every piece of the country has its own high-calorie foods," O'Neil said. "The kinds of foods that we're accustomed to in the South tend to be awfully higher in fat and higher in calories."

The new CDC report says:

--Obesity was most common in adults ages 40 to 59.

--There were large differences by race for women — the female obesity rates in the 40 to 59 age group were 39 percent in white women, 51 percent in Mexican-American women and 51 percent in black women.

--There were no racial or ethnic disparities, however, in the male obesity rates.

--About a third of obese adults had not been told by a doctor or health care provider that they were overweight.

The report is based on a comprehensive survey by the federal government that includes physical examinations from about 4,400 adults ages 20 and older in 2005 and 2006.

About 33 percent of men and 35 percent of women were obese. The new rates were slightly higher than figures reported in 2003-2004 surveys, which were 31 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

However, in generalizing the results to the U.S. population, researchers calculated a margin of error that swallows up the differences between years. In other words, the increases were not considered statistically significant.

O'Neil was skeptical of the study's findings, because he said the results are consistent with past results for the same period of time.

It's too soon to celebrate the findings, O'Neil said, adding that it could take years to truly tell an obesity-rate turnover.

His advice to weight watchers: "Keep the cork in the champagne bottle."