Obesity

Overweight: The New Healthy

|

A couple of years ago, a team of researchers led by Katherine Flegal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at data from the the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and discovered that the mortality rate for people the government considers "overweight" was lower than the mortality rate for people with weights the government deems "normal," "healthy," or "optimal." The study did find a higher death rate among people fat enough to be considered "obese" (and among the "underweight"), but it implied a much lower annual death toll associated with excess weight than the CDC had been claiming: about 100,000, as opposed to 400,000 or so. (If you take into account the lower mortality rate among the merely "overweight," the net number of "excess deaths" among those who weigh more than the governnment thinks they should is about 26,000.) Just as important, the study cast doubt on the meaning of the "overweight" label, since it showed that the government-preferred range is not only not "normal" (since most people exceed it); it may not even be "optimal" in terms of health. Now (as Ron Bailey notes below) Flegal and several other government-employed scientists are back with a detailed look at causes of death in various weight ranges.

The new study—published, like the earlier one, in The Journal of the American Medical Association—finds that the excess deaths among the obese are overwhelmingly due to cardiovascular disease. The category "diabetes and kidney disease" comes in second. While the overall cancer death rate was not higher than in the "normal" weight group, certain cancers (colon, breast, esophagus, uterus, ovary, kidney, and pancreas) were slightly more common. By contrast, compared to people of "normal" weight, those who were merely "overweight" (but not "obese") had lower rates of death from a variety of causes, including respiratory disease, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. Flegal et al. say the differences remained after they controlled for smoking and pre-existing disease, both of which are associated with lower weight.

Standing alone, these data do not prove that plumpness is healthy or that thinness kills. But they do cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that everyone should strive for a government-approved weight. In response to Flegal et al.'s research, JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, tells The New York Times "health extends far beyond mortality rates," which is true enough. In particular, Manson notes that "excess weight makes it more difficult to move about and impairs the quality of life." But that sort of day-to-day impairment is much more obvious than the lurking, lethal risk of a few extra pounds that Manson has been warning people about for years. A 1995 New York Times headline inspired by one of Manson's studies warned that "Even Moderate Weight Gains Can Be Deadly." The story quoted Manson's prediction that "it won't be long before obesity surpasses cigarette smoking as a cause of death in this country." It looks like both of those claims were wrong, which is good news not only for "overweight" people but for anyone worried about the social engineers with plans for making us thinner. 

NEXT: The Costs of Doing Business

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Uh-huh, sure…

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not agree with any of these government run health initiatives that try to modify people’s eating and exercise. But don’t try and tell me that excess weight doesn’t suck. Take it from one who knows-being overweight makes you feel like crap, even if it doesn’t kill you.

  2. From age 18 to age 38, all at 6′ tall, I have been every weight between 125 and 205. 175-180 is my best range. I think that is either high end of “normal” or low end of “overweight”. The ranges are wrong.

    Anyone want to borrow about 15 lbs? I would like to get back into that range.

  3. Amazingly, scientists have confirmed that people who die of wasting diseases are not fat when they croak.

    Shocker!

    In other news, men like looking at women with big breasts.

  4. Normal BMI for me is in a weight range of 137-183. I can say from experience that the bottom end of that range is underweight and unhealthy. I dont really disagree with top end of range, sounds about right.

  5. The study did find a higher death rate among people fat enough to be considered “obese”

    Higher death rate? Higher than 100%? I mean, doesn’t everyone–skinny or fat–die in the end?

  6. Abdul,

    I won’t…

  7. Your heart has only so many beats. Exercising increases your heart rate, and lowers your life expectency. If you want to live longer, take a nap!

    I kid, I kid…

  8. I’m 5’5″ and i weigh about 127 lbs. According to the BMI model, the range of ‘normal’ weights for me would be ~ 111 – 149 or 130 +/- 19 lbs.
    I read (i think in a men’s magazine a few years back) this other model: [((height in inches) – 59) * 6] + 100 = ideal weight in lbs, +/- 10% = healthy range. For me, this works out to 136 lbs or a range of 122 – 150 lbs. I find this latter range to be more reasonable based on my own experience (at least, the lower end – the upper end is the same for both formulas and sounds fine although i’ve never come close to it).

  9. Anyone want to borrow about 15 lbs? I would like to get back into that range.

    If it were possible, I’d take you up on it. Weight problems suck, don’t they?

  10. In other news, men like looking at women with big breasts.

    Make that, In other news, men like looking at women.

  11. Fact: I am 5’10”, weigh 157lbs, bmi=22.5 just about as “normal” as the scale allows.

    Anecdote: After attending a professional football game a group of friends and I were doing some post-game tailgating as we waited for the traffic to subside. I weigh, by far, the least of the people I was with, all of whom would at least be considered overweight. A couple of EMT’s came walking by and, not being in a hurry, stopped to chat. One of my buddies waved his hand toward himself and the other big guys and said something like “you must spend all your time doing heart massage on guys like us?” – one of the EMT’s laughed a little and, pointing at me, said “actually most of the guys we work on are built like him.”!

    I’ve haven’t slept well since.

  12. Of course it matters a lot where you’re carrying those extra few pounds. If the fat’s in your head, you may end up giving money to Ron Paul.

  13. I think stress is a much bigger threat to health than being overweight (up to a point – your mordibly obese types are obviosly a different story).

    Most of the people I know who are super-stressed are more on the wiry side – all that nervous energy keeps the fat off, I guess.

    Might be why your EMT’s work on a lot of skinny people, too many.

  14. Edward,

    Congress is giving money to Ron Paul!?

  15. Of course it matters a lot where you’re carrying those extra few pounds. If the fat’s in your head, you may end up giving money to Ron Paul.

    Since healthy brain tissue has a high fat content, you’re actually right: those with more up there will give to Ron Paul, as opposed to those with insufficient gray matter like you…

  16. Hooray. Now if we can only convince people to find healthy people attractive.

  17. Weight problems suck, don’t they?

    If I exercised every time I planned to exercise, it wouldnt be a problem.

  18. When my grandmother was 50 she was turned down for life insurance because of her weight. She lived in a small town, and ultimately attended the funeral of the thinner, younger insurance salesman.

    Doesn’t prove anything, but she loved telling that story until the day she died, at 95 and still grossly overweight.

  19. But don’t try and tell me that excess weight doesn’t suck.

    MPG, re-read the original post, carefully, slowly, then get back to us.

  20. When my grandmother was 50 she was turned down for life insurance because of her weight. She lived in a small town, and ultimately attended the funeral of the thinner, younger insurance salesman.

    There’s an old legend among undertakers – you never see a fat man in the casket. Maybe there’s something to it….

  21. The health effects (if any) of overweight might not be limited to mortality. I remember calculating average health care expenditures by BMI using the 2003-2004 MEPS data and being surprised that overweight people actually spent slightly less on health care than their “normal” weight counterparts. (Though I don’t think I controlled for pre-existing disease or socio-economic characteristics. For example, it’s possible some of those “normal” weight people were people who had recently lost a lot of weight due to illness.)

  22. Johnny Clarke’s story made me smile.

  23. I saw this mentioned on http://www.projectweightloss.com and wanted to add my two cents. I personally think it’s a bit dangerous to create the impression that it’s ok for people to be overweight. I mean, we’re being overweight right now, even though we know this is a problem; if we start thinking it’s ok to be a bit overweight, we’ll probably end up being really overweight. I realize it’s a matter of degree, and the specialists are not advocating for people to become obese, but I think once we change our frame of mind to thinking it’s ok to eat more, it will be hard to eat just *a little bit* more, and many will end up eating *a lot* more.

  24. I learn something new everyday or get to read about other people’s experience which is why I love reading blogs. Best Fat Burner.

  25. Let’s not forget child obesity. It is certainly troubling. Since 1980 the child obesity rate in the United States has tripled.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.