The New York Times has an article summing up the same study that I talked about yesterday (thanks to “Alas” reader Katie for the tip). The big finding: it’s better to be a little “overweight” than to be “normal” weight.
People who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, federal researchers are reporting today.
The researchers – statisticians and epidemiologists from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – also found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting only 8 percent of Americans.
And being very thin, even though the thinness was longstanding and unlikely to stem from disease, caused a slight increase in the risk of death, the researchers said.
The new study, considered by many independent scientists to be the most rigorous yet on the effects of weight, controlled for factors like smoking, age, race and alcohol consumption in a sophisticated analysis derived from a well-known method that has been used to predict cancer risk.
Perhaps the Times just didn’t mention it, but it sounds like they didn’t control for the negative health effects of weight cycling (aka “yo-yo dieting”). Multiple studies have shown that weight cycling can take years of of people’s lives; a morbidity study of fat that doesn’t control for this factor will inevitably exaggerate the risks of fat.
The article’s conclusion:
“The take-home message from this study, it seems to me, is unambiguous,” Dr. Glassner said. “What is officially deemed overweight these days is actually the optimal weight.”
And hey, while I’m on the subject, let me recommend this terrific Paul Campos article from the New Republic, “The Weighting Game” (pdf link – the article begins on page 3). Thanks to “Alas” reader Richard Bellamy for the link. Here’s a sample, but the whole thing is good:
If fat is ultimately irrelevant to health, our fear of fat, unfortunately, is not. Americans’ obsession with thinness feeds an institution that actually is a danger to Americans’ health: the diet industry.
Tens of millions of Americans are trying more or less constantly to lose 20 or 30 pounds. (Recent estimates are that, on any particular day, close to half the adult population is on some sort of diet.) Most say they are doing so for their health, often on the advice of their doctors. Yet numerous studies–two dozen in the last 20 years alone–have shown that weight loss of this magnitude (and indeed even of as little as ten pounds) leads to an increased risk of premature death, sometimes by an order of several hundred percent. By contrast, over this same time frame, only a handful of studies have indicated that weight loss leads to lower mortality rates–and one of these found an eleven-hour increase in life expectancy per pound lost (i.e., less than an extra month of life in return for a 50-pound weight loss). This pattern holds true even when studies take into account “occult wasting,” the weight loss that sometimes accompanies a serious but unrelated illness.
For example, a major American Cancer Society study published in 1995 concluded in no uncertain terms that healthy “overweight” and “obese” women were better off if they didn’t lose weight. In this study, healthy women who intentionally lost weight over a period of a year or longer suffered an all-cause increased risk of premature mortality that was up to 70 percent higher than that of healthy women who didn’t intentionally lose weight. Meanwhile, unintentional weight gain had no effect on mortality rates. (A 1999 report based on the same data pool found similar results for men.)