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In The News: Is Overweight the Picture of Health?

peopleScalephotoNo!  There’s just a lot of irresponsible reporting.

The New York Times is sharing the findings of a new study published in Obesity (that’s the title of the journal) — basically, that “people who [are] overweight but not obese [are] actually less likely to die than people of normal weight.”

The first sentence of the article already irritated me:

Being overweight won’t kill you — it may even help you live longer.

That’s certainly not the most accurate conclusion.  Sure, it catches readers’ attention, but also completely misinforms them.

There are three main points to keep in mind with this kind of study:

  1. It is solely looking at the risk of death associated with different body weights.  There is absolutely no mention — or measure — of quality of life issues.  Are these overweight people who are living longer taking ten different medications, each with their share of side effects?  Do these overweight individuals feel more pain on their joints when they go up and down stairs?  Do they run out of breath much quicker?
  2. We have no idea what these participants’ dietary habits were like.  Did the overweight participants have overall healthier diets (i.e.: more fruits and vegetables, healthier fats, more whole grains) than those in the “normal weight” category?
  3. A very likely explanation for these results, as explained in the article, is that “many health conditions associated with being overweight, like high blood pressure, are being treated with medication.”

So, in that case, it’s not being overweight that extends someone’s life, but being overweight in a time and society where many of the complications associated with that can be managed with medication that may add a few years.

My other concern is that the only measurement used in the study was BMI (Body Mass Index).

BMI can be tricky because all it takes into consideration is height and weight.  As a result, a healthy and muscular man may be classified as “overweight”, thereby skewing results.

It is also important to note that falling into the “overweight” category as a result of being 4 pounds above one’s ideal body weight is very different from a 15 pound difference.

This study would have been a lot more useful — and may have resulted in different results — if waist circumference was also taken into account.  It has been well established that increases in that number are certainly associated with higher risks of many health conditions.

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One Comment

  1. US Food Trends said on June 27th, 2009

    Your criticisms of this study – and I do agree with your criticisms – could very easily be applied to, for example, another recent study publicized by the NY Times. This study “proved” that eating red meat caused people to die earlier, in part because they had more accidents!

    I would like to see a lot more rigor applied to all studies!

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