Obesity is bad, we all know that. Or do we? Is obesity really public threat number 1 or simply misunderstood? It's complicated.
All things in moderation
People like to exaggerate information and oversimplify without looking at the facts. It's happened time and time again. Society normally swings too far in response, and misses the case for moderation. After all, too much water can kill you but it's hardly a case for drought. Research is suggesting the same applies for obesity; obesity might be bad, but being a little overweight could actually protect you.
This is a controversial statement, but many people are unaware of evidence providing a more complex picture of weight. One such meta-analysis found that while obesity increased risk of all cause mortality compared to 'normal' weight, being moderately overweight was associated with lower all cause mortality. Overweight individuals actually had a 6% less chance of dying than the normal group. A radical conclusion.
What's the difference between being obese and overweight?
Obesity specifically indicates excess body fat and a BMI above 30. Overweight indicates a weight higher than normal, and includes a BMI range between 25 and 29. Most negative studies focus on obese, not overweight individuals. The two have therefore become lumped together with time.
It's very clear that above a particular threshold, obesity raises risk for many diseases. The meta-analysis also confirmed this. What's really interesting is that being overweight has some significant benefits and may even be 'healthier' than being thin. Furthermore, the lower end of the obese category didn't offer particular benefits, but it wasn't associated with any increased mortality either.
Is there any more positive research?
Yes, quite a lot.
- One study has found that a higher body mass in men is correlated with a decreased incidence of rheumatoid arthritis.
- More research has concluded that being overweight can significantly protect you from dementia.
- There is evidence that extra weight can boost your immune system, and provide a better barrier against your external environment.
- Fat can shield you from physical harm. One man was stabbed 38 times and survived because fat protected his organs from damage.
- While obesity might be undesirable, fat is a potent source of energy, and extra padding can help recovery times after serious injury or illness.
Don't pick up the cookies yet
Information like this is important to share, because it provides an alternative picture. While various studies have found positive effects, being thin could also have specific benefits. A higher calorie intake might raise sugar damage across the body, which contributes to aging. Weight can also raise blood pressure.
There are a number of factors to discuss:
- BMI is a poor measure of weight, as it fails to take into account muscularity or genetic differences. It may be that 'overweight' individuals were also more muscular.
- All fat isn't equal and the study doesn't differentiate between different types. Different diets and lifestyles encourage different fat distribution and a sedentary lifestyle is not healthy.
- Longer lives don't necessarily equate to a better quality of life. It may be that obesity protects to an extent, but that being normal or even thin can also provide some benefits too, like stamina.
- Different genes and racial backgrounds determine different 'healthy' levels of fat distribution for each of us. There is no one size fits all.
- Being overweight makes doctors cautious and helps earlier diagnosis of conditions, which slim patients may miss. It may be that this vigilance helps improve survival rates.
- A calorie is not a calorie, so the route to obesity may be more important than the weight itself. Lower insulin sensitivity and inflammation worsened by bad dietary patterns can raise risk of heart disease and stroke, but being overweight alone does not. How each person becomes overweight could be a key variable.
So being overweight could be a good thing?
There are so many factors here that it's difficult to make a reliable judgement, but it does appear being overweight has at least been unfairly vilified. This data doesn't mean we should all aim to be overweight, but it raises some important questions. Before anyone takes this as an excuse to pile on the pounds however, there's a line between overweight and obese, and the matter is far from decided.
Read more at NHS News