TCS Daily

Fat and Happy: The Weight Story No One Wants to Talk About

By John Luik - November 19, 2007 12:00 AM

It's been a tough time the last little while for the fatties among us -- which is supposedly most of us. According to the just released report from the American Institute for Cancer Research being fat and eating certain foods increases our risk for cancer. The secret to a long life according to the report's authors is to be as thin as you can, while avoiding red meat, processed meats, alcohol, French fries, milk shakes and, well, you get the picture.

But in contrast to the cancer report, which received enormous and largely uncritical media attention, a new study about obesity by Katherine Flegal and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute made few waves. Yet Flegal's quiet and careful study could do much to calm our growing national hysteria about obesity.

Flegal used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is a representative sample of the US population, to find the connections between being underweight, overweight and obese and cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer and many other causes of death. The results are startling since they confound much of the received wisdom about being fat in America.

Flegal discovered that being overweight (BMI's of 25-30) was not responsible for increased mortality. In fact for CVD, cancer and all other causes, being overweight actually increased one's chance of living longer. In total, overweight was associated with a total of 138, 281 fewer deaths. Being overweight is not likely to kill you.

She found that being obese increased the risk of premature death for the most part in only the most obese, that is those with BMI's over 35. In other words, even modest obesity is not a death sentence. For example, those with BMI's of 30-35 aged 25-69 did not have a statistically significant increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Indeed, for cancer the results are even more startling since even those with BMI's in excess of 35 did not have a statistically significant increased risk of dying. And for all other diseases other than CVD and cancer, obesity up to a BMI of 35 was modestly protective -- that is, likely to result in a longer rather than a shorter life.  

She also found that being underweight carries substantial risks. Whereas obesity accounts for 95, 442 deaths, being thin is associated with 46, 398 -- almost half as many deaths as obesity. But then one is unlikely to ever hear about the risks of being thin or the mortality toll associated with underweight.

Nor are these findings a fluke. In 2005 Flegal and the same team found that being overweight reduced one's chances of dying, that the majority of deaths due to obesity were in the morbidly obese, and perhaps most surprisingly, that there was no statistically significant increased risk for death associated with even modest obesity.

The implications of these findings, which barely registered in the news cycle, are significant. They suggest that most Americans need not worry about being too fat, since most mortality is associated with BMI's in excess of 35. They suggest that the continual message from the government and the public health community to lose weight or to be as thin as possible lacks a credible scientific basis. And they suggest that it is those who weigh too little whose plight also deserves some attention.

The author is a health researcher and co-author of the upcoming book "Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade" with Patrick Basham, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

1 Comment

Even when my weight is what I would consider good, I am labeled with a BMI slightly outside of normal. I think the BMI scale was setup for models because your average joes on the street are all too fat.

Big Mike
CEO of Rancho Cucamonga Bail Bonds

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