Obesity may have multiple negative health effects, but higher mortality rates are not among them, according to a study that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Researchers found that people with weight problems don’t necessarily have shorter life expectancies than their normal-weight contemporaries. In fact, a few extra pounds could even lower the risk of an untimely death.
The findings were greeted with great interest in the press and welcomed as good news for the two-thirds of all Americans who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are considered overweight or obese.
Based on the results of this study, the government ought to redefine the meaning of “overweight” and “obese” and re-categorize a large part of the population as normal-weight and healthy, writes Paul Campus, author of “The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health” (Penguin Group, 2004), in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
“If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead,” he says.
If only it were that easy.
What this particular study does say is that among all causes of mortality, not overall health risks, being overweight does not seem to stand out as a particularly significant factor. But that doesn’t mean the obesity crisis should no longer be treated as such.
In fact, the study, which investigated the causes of 270,000 deaths from around the world, also found that the morbidly obese had a 29 percent increased risk of dying prematurely compared to normal-weight and moderately overweight people.
It would be a mistake to conclude from this one study that Americans can keep overeating, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC department that conducted the research. “I don’t think anyone would disagree with the basic fact that being more physically active and eating a healthier diet is very important for your health,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Other experts agree. The body mass index (BMI) by which weight levels are commonly measured is an imperfect assessment of the risk of mortality, and additional factors like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar must also be considered, says Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, in an interview (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/02/health/study-suggests-lower-death-risk-for-the-overweight.html?hpw) with the New York Times in response to the study release.
But many of these diseases are diet and lifestyle related, and together they amount to over 60 percent of all causes of death in the world today, according to the World Health Organization (http://www.who.int/nmh/events/un_ncd_summit2011/en/) (WHO).
Maintaining a healthy weight range may not automatically produce longevity. It may have little or no influence on one’s life expectancy at all, as this study seems to indicate. But we can say with certainty that struggling with weight problems and other related health issues significantly takes away from the quality of life a person can enjoy, and increasingly so with age. A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) found that “Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) lost to U.S. adults due to morbidity and mortality from obesity have more than doubled from 1993 to 2008 and the prevalence of obesity has increased 89.9 percent during the same period.”
If we only look at statistics, we may not understand how weight problems affect people in so many ways. Being unable to move without pain, being dependent on medications, getting out of breath at the slightest physical strain, those are the consequences that may not actually shorten life but make it so much harder – and unnecessarily so.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun,” which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).