What's Behind New Findings That It's Healthy to Be Overweight?
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Did you hear the news? Now it’s healthy to be fat! It turns out that your smug skinny friend who eats broccoli and runs marathons should have been eating fast food and watching TV this whole time. Right?
Well, maybe not. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has made headlines because it found that overweight people have lower mortality rates than people with “healthy” weights and that even moderate obesity does not increase mortality.
This means that an overweight 5’4” woman weighing between 145 and 169 pounds ( Body Mass Index of 25 to 29) has less chance of dying than a woman of the same height who weighs less. If she gains weight and falls within the lower obese range (174 to 204 pounds, BMI of 30 to 35), she is equally likely to die as a woman with a “healthy” BMI of 18.5 to 25. Only once her weight exceeds 205 pounds does her risk of mortality increase.
The study made waves when a recent New York Times op-ed proclaimed that “baselessly categorizing at least 130 million Americans — and hundreds of millions in the rest of the world — as people in need of ‘treatment’ for their ‘condition’ serves the economic interests of, among others, the multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry and large pharmaceutical companies.”
So what’s the story? Is it healthy to be overweight?
As usual, it’s instructive to look back in history – in this case to the mid-1990s when the current standards we use to define “overweight” and “obese” were set. Initially, the U.S. government used a BMI of 27.3 for women and a BMI of 27.8 for men as the lowest BMIs that qualified as overweight.
Across the pond, British scientist Philip James convened the International Obesity Task Force in 1995, and their work, in collaboration with the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), led to an international standard that defined a BMI of 25 or above as overweight for both sexes, and a BMI of 30 or above as obese.
Back in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health put together an expert panel, chaired by Dr. F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, a recognized expert on obesity, and at the time, the executive director of the Weight Watchers Foundation. In September 1998, they published a document called the “ Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults,” which lowered the U.S. standard for overweight to match the international standard.
Suddenly, a 5’4” woman who weighed 145 or a 5’10” man who weighed 174 were considered overweight. Newspapers published articles on 29 million Americans who went to bed at a healthy weight one night and woke up the next morning to discover they were overweight – although they had not gained one single pound! At the time, these previously “healthy weight” individuals accounted for nearly 30 percent of the overweight and obese people in America.
In the mainstream media, one of the few opposing voices to this change was former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who told the Washington Post that, “weight does not increase the risk of death until the BMI reaches 27 or 28.” Other critics feared that the new standards would result in an increase in the use of diet drugs or discourage Americans, resulting in them giving up trying to lose weight altogether.
Others point to conflicts of interest among the expert panel that defined 55 percent of the nation (at the time) as overweight or obese, or even data showing that a few extra pounds did not result in increased mortality.